Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Roddy Doyle, James Frey, and a biography of Malcolm X.

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

Gerard Woodward reviews Roddy Doyle's new short story collection in the Guardian, and is overcome by Doyle's portrayal of a middle-aged malaise in which "everyone in the whole world is 48. That's what it can feel like, after reading these tightly themed stories of mid-life angst." Even so, the book refrains from heavy-handedness: "Scenes are conjured from a few dabs, narratives held together with invisible thread. It is a technique he has been honing since his earliest books, and one that is particularly suited to the short story. The tone of the collection is far from bleak."

Jane Clinton, writing in the Express, concedes that "a collection of short stories on the theme of male loss may not seem that appealing", though finds Doyles' collection one of "rare and beautiful mid-life meditations". Tonally, his writing is enough to persuade Clinton that she is "eavesdropping on each of these men's forbidden thoughts and fears"; though the book "is not all doom" thanks to "flashes of morbid, and sometimes crude, humour". Generally, "the preoccupations of a gender and generation perhaps not known for emotional outpourings is surprisingly uplifting."

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey

Mark Lawson's Guardian review of James Frey's novel acknowledges that "the fate that would await a contemporary messiah ... is ... regularly attempted in fiction." However, "the novel itself is compelling as both a thriller and a provocative riposte to religious orthodoxies". Yet this "riposte" might go too far for "fervent believers", for whom "the problem with this novel will be blasphemy." Despite that, Lawson notes that "there's also a secular literary objection. The book creates a Jesus who conveniently preaches the values of liberal America - pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, anti-churchgoing - but there's no reason why this figure should have more validity than the historical one being dismissed." Even so, Frey's fiction is "impressively done", "the alternating testimonies distinctively voiced and the twists on the gospel versions nicely judged."

Peter Conrad writes less charitably in the Observer, finding the novel an "unmoving tale", and warning that Frey, not only "isn't fooling anyone", but "happens to be a shameless faker, who manufactures mishaps to embellish his personal mystique". His latest novel is "artlessly crass in its retelling of what's meant to be the greatest story ever told"; his protagonistic messiah figure is "a semi-articulate hippy"; his prose "lumpenly prosaic, unable to conceive of or communicate rapture". Ultimately, Frey's work "makes Jesus Christ Superstar sound like Handel's Messiah."

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

A review published by Wilbert Rideau in the Financial Times praises Marable's work as "encyclopaedic in its approach", with a "staggering breadth and depth of scholarship" and "much to recommend it for its history of orthodox Islam, the perspective it offers on the black political movements of the 1950s and 1960s that changed America, and its insights into the development and inner workings of the Nation of Islam". However, "Marable the academic historian is sometimes at odds with Marable the biographer", and though this book is "indispensable as a reference for scholars", such detail might also prove "an impediment for the general reader". Rideau suggests that "too much detail about Islamic history ... interrupts the narrative about Malcolm X's development". Moreover, the account lacks "a sense of the man as a fully rounded human being: a friend, father, lover or husband." Marable fails to wholly capture this "elusive and enigmatic public figure whose politically incorrect speech gave voice to the dark and angry thoughts of an oppressed people."

Andrew Anthony, writing in the Observer, heralds Marable's biography as the aptly "meticulous portrait" that Malcolm X "deserves" - a "comprehensive and fair-minded portrait of both Malcolm and the turbulent period of American history in which he lived and died". Marable details the extent to which Malcolm was "adept at tailoring his message to different audiences", though finds that ultimately, "the man who emerges from this book is in many respects admirable: brave, loyal, self-disciplined, quick-witted, charismatic, acutely intelligent and a public speaker of quite awesome power". Despite this, Marable also traces Malcolm's flaws: chiefly his "attitude to women", and successfully places Malcolm's personal life alongside "his unique role in black and global resistance culture".

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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