Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Kwasi Karteng, Nicholson Baker and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Karteng

Labour MP Tristram Hunt admires this "compelling and important history of the British empire" in the Observer, by his colleague from the opposite benches, the Tory MP for Spelthorne. It goes fiercely against the Cameronite sense of history: "Its target is those neoconservative cheerleaders of empire - Niall Ferguson, Michael Gove - who regard British colonialism as a 'good thing' and the model for a modern Pax Americana.... Instead, Ghosts of Empire marks a return to traditional, Tory scepticism shorn of ideology and purpose. There is little rhyme or rhythm to this history". In the Telegraph George Walden noted that the problem was not an imperialist central government but the free reign given to the "cranks, oddballs and romantics" who ran the empire. Sholto Byrnes, in the Independent agrees, but is less pleased with the style, calling it merely "amusing and mostly well-written".

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

"The real story here," writes James Lasdun in the Guardian, of Nicholson Baker's picaresque of comic smut, "is why the cleverly observant author of works such as The Mezzanine and Room Temperature has chosen to publish something at once so daft and so half-hearted. He calls it an 'Entertainment' but 'Wank Book' would have been more accurate." Set outside of normal spacetime, in the eponymous, fantastical sex-resort, a stroke of invention admired by Sam Lipsyte in The New York Times: "one of the loopier spots in literary memory -- Plato's Retreat by way of the Magic Mountain, or maybe the Oneida Community via Fantasy Island.... not even Mr. Roarke's paradise boasts 'pornsucker ships' (which fly over American cities and suck up the bad porn) or 'crotchal transfers'. Nor does it feature 'mastur­boats' or 'groanrooms' or a 'squat line' organized for the pleasure of female guests." In the LA Times, David L Ulin finds "an unexpected depth, a tenderness" to the novel, although "in the manner of superficial sex, [it] leaves us feeling oddly unfulfilled."

"House of Holes" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

The author of what Sukhdev Sandhu in the Guardian calls "an allusive, elusive creature - not quite memoir, fragmented social history, partial documentary", has lived in Harlem since 2004, when it was subject to gentrification: "In 1990, 672 white people lived in central Harlem; in 2008, there were 13,800. Columbia University has even sought to gobble up real estate to convert into student dormitories." In the FT, Bonnie Greer praised the book's style: "Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts marks herself out as a first-rate noticer with the gift of being able to allow us to notice things exactly when she does. Her lyrical prose flows like the human gaze: a glimpse here, a longer look there, a quick turning away when something is too contradictory, or too difficult to sort through"; Sandhu likewise compares her to Walter Benjamin, a poet of the unnoticed, working "through bricolage and delicately diaristic prose". In the Wall Street Journal, Edward Kosner is less pleased with "memoir mixed with social anthropology is at once affected and affecting", which compares unfavourably with other recent books on Harlem.

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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