Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Julian Assange, Robert Harris and Richard Beard.

Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography

"Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and part Scottish novelist and ghostwriter Andrew O' Hagan ... [have] given birth to an unfinished draft ... published before its maturity under the wacky title The Unauthorised Autobiography," writes David Leigh in the Guardian's review. "The lack of a final edit does ... disservices to Assange's story. The narrative stops too abruptly ... It's padded out ... with unnecessary chunks of the cables themselves, which can be read elsewhere." Leigh concludes that "These marsupial memoirs of his seem unlikely to increase [Assange's] prospects of becoming the messiah of the information age. Maybe, sadly, even the reverse."

By contrast, Lloyd Evans writes in the Spectator that "the author of this book ... [has] produced a compelling portrait of a brave, complex, difficult, brilliant and essentially humane individual ... Assange is not easy to like but his intellectual gifts, his moral courage and his carelessness of his own physical safety make him impossible not to admire."

James Ball, in the New Statesman's review suggests that Assange's "desire to lash out against his enemies ... drains much of the immediacy from the book." Ball concludes that "this is a flawed and fractured portrait of a flawed and fractured character. That, at least, is fitting."

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Emmanuel Roman writes in the Guardian that "In ... Harris's latest thriller ... we are cast into the dystopic world of finance where nerdy hedge fund managers and their computers may be the modern embodiment of evil ... Computer programmes predict fear as a motivation, and ... [use] this information to short-sell stocks."

In the Scotsman, Stephen McGinty observes that Harris "calmly [lays] out ... that a man with a knife is ... nothing compared to the terror of knowing the true volatility and cluelessness of the current financial masters of the universe." Roman notes that the novel's "upshot may be about as believable as Jurassic Park but ... I may be overly familiar with what computers can and can't do."

McGinty describes Harris as "our literary Alfred Hitchcock ... Harris is a 'thriller writer', but in time his canon will be viewed as something far greater." Charles Moore, in the Telegraph, is similarly complimentary, finding The Fear Index "hugely enjoyable" and arguing that it has "a Dickensian potential for a great novel, even more thrilling than a thriller, about the way we live now." In the New Statesman's review, Alex Preston finds that The Fear Index delves "into the heart of a complex, abstract world without oversimplifying or seeming clunkingly didactic." Harris has "woven some fascinating subplots into the novel."

Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard

In the Observer, Tom Lee writes that, "The Bible says almost nothing about the life of Lazarus before and after he was raised from the dead. Richard Beard's fourth novel sets out to elaborate on what we do know from the Gospel of John." Adrian Turpin writes in the Financial Times that the novel "impressively spins an entire life story. Lazarus and Jesus are childhood friends, fellow exiles in Egypt ... Beset by a series of illnesses, [Lazarus] needs a miracle, but Jesus fails to respond."

Lee finds that, "The characters remain more or less the archetypes of biblical tale or myth, without psychological specificity or depth" and "the narration retains a plain, almost remote, quasi-biblical style ... At times, it drops into an essay-like register." For Turpin, although the book is "hardly as 'genre-bending' as the publishers suggest ... [it is] clever and original ... [and] keeps the reader guessing until the death- and beyond."

Show Hide image

Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle