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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Why serving wine at room temperature is a myth

There is no such thing as room temperature: there are simply different rooms. 

As a child, I loved Aesop’s Fables – all except one. Like most children, I had an aggrieved sense of adults’ perceived superiority, and enjoyed seeing them outwitted or outthought, in fiction at least, by fellow inferior beings: children, ideally, but animals would do.

Voltaire thought that fables were invented by the first conquered race, because free men have no need to dress up truth in allegory, and maybe he was right: Aesop, after all, was a slave. But children have been shackled by dependence and freed by imagination since time began, so who knows? Perhaps the form was created by them.

The fable I disliked involved a Satyr and a Man. The latter blew on his fingers to warm them, then on his porridge to cool it; the former, appalled, refused to fraternise further with a creature who could blow hot and cold with the same breath. Even to my immature self, this seemed unjust. The Man was adaptable, not dishonest; the ambient temperature had changed, and his actions with it. And who is a Satyr – half man, half goat – to accuse others of being neither one thing nor the other?

It turns out that most modern wine waiters are Satyrs of a sort. If I had a pound for every bewildered burbling about “room temperature” when I’ve asked for a wine, often red, to be cooled, I would buy myself a Eurocave. (Actually, I already have one, and it stores all my wine at a beautifully consistent 12 degrees. But it is full, so I would buy another.)

There is no such thing, Satyrs, as room temperature: there are simply different rooms, and just as I despise a wine chilled beyond all flavour perception to a degree that could be termed English Stately Home, so I desire never again to sit in a breezeless interior in midsummer while someone serves red wine that practically steams in the glass.

The vine is an exceptionally adaptable plant, stubbornly digging its roots into chalk or sand or clay, and the eventual result is a liquid that contains, when well made, something of both the land that nourished it and the hand that made it.

Humanity, too, is malleable, often to a fault. We shuck off cardigans or pull on thick coats, and sometimes we do the one while wishing heartily that we were doing the other, and we drink something that briefly transports us to the place we yearn for. It is only Satyrs who lack imagination, although adults sometimes need theirs refreshed.

Voltaire agreed. “The Man was absolutely right,” he wrote scornfully of this fable, “and the Satyr was an idiot.” I suspect he and I would also have concurred on the question of wine temperature, although, if so, Voltaire had a problem. He was in the habit of serving his guests wine from Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, which is made with the Gamay grape. If there is one red wine that needs to be served chilled, to about 11 degrees, it is this one. But for his own enjoyment, the great philosopher cravenly reserved fine Burgundy, and the aromatic complexity of that wine would have needed a couple of degrees more for its perfumes and flavours to evaporate sensuously into his hovering nostrils.

I picture him chilling the wines uniformly, then warming the contents of his own glass with a discreet exhalation of breath. Moral failings, as every Aesop reader knows, come in many forms. That is what separates us from the animals.

 

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear