Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Corey Robin and Condoleezza Rice.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

Roz Kaveney, writing in the Independent, writes that Stephen King's latest novel is "about time-travel, about the attempt to create a new and better world by going back and changing one big thing: in this case, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy." "Jake Epping, the hero of King's new book 11.22.63, is not a scientist but a divorced high school teacher from Maine" reports Adam LeBor in the Financial Times.

LeBor finds that the novel "marks a definite maturing of literary command and ambition and is a step up from recent, more standard works [by King], such as Cell (2006)." By contrast, Rachel Cooke writes in the Observer that "King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words ... I wouldn't have finished 11.22.63 if I hadn't been reviewing it. Whilst King's novel is "coherent enough to make an intellectual point, [it] seems to be arguing that meddling in history is a bad idea. Things - even awful things - happen for a reason ... I'm not sure I agree."

"The key to any novel set in an alternate reality is credible world-building ... King succeeds in this, partly by drawing on his own memories. He was 11 years old in 1958" writes LeBor. Kaveney comments that, "One of the strengths of the book is King's at once nostalgic and honest view of the end of the Eisenhower era. Jake is conscious that it's quite a nice time for him, but that as a straight white man, it would be."

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin

In a collection of previously published essays "Corey Robin, an American academic of the left, believes that while his ideological enemy adapts to circumstance, it does not change" writes John Kampfner in the Guardian. "The ruling class rests 'its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood ... Failure is its most potent source of inspiration. Loss - real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige - is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.'"

Sheri Berman writes in the New York Times that Robin defines conservatism as "an inherently elitist and hierarchical ideology, whose essence is the defense of elite privileges against challenges from below." However, a big problem with Robin's thesis is that: "Fascism and National Socialism ... were anti-elitist and deliberately destroyed the traditional orders in the countries where they gained power. The strongest right-wing movements in the West in more recent decades have been populist as well."

Kampfner comments that, "Perhaps the biggest weakness is Robin's inability to engage with Conservatism's enduring popularity" and concludes that whilst this is "a very readable romp through the evils of Conservatism ... the book would have been more powerful if the author had not allowed his visceral loathing to get the better of him."

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1995 to 2007, reviews No Higher Honor in the 14 November issue of the New Statesman. Powell describes the memoir as a "diplomatic tour d'horizon, a canter round the world as Rice rushes from one event to another." It gives "occasional glimpses of her reserve: for instance, when she is required to put on a comic karaoke performance at a retreat of Asean foreign ministers and is told that her predecessor Colin Powell performed a pastiche of the Village People's 'YMCA.'"

Toby Harnden writes in the Telegraph that "there's a saying in Washington that every political memoir can be boiled down to six words: "If Only They'd Listened to Me." ... Condoleezza Rice's weighty and rather ponderous account of her time as President George W Bush's National Security Adviser and Secretary of State is a classic of the genre."

Dissimilarly, Glenn Kessler reports in the Washington Post that "in many ways, this is the first serious memoir of the Bush presidency ... Rice emphasizes that the well-publicized disputes with Cheney and Rumsfeld were (in her mind) not personal, but simply business ... Given how roughly Cheney and Rumsfeld treated her in their accounts of the Bush years, such equanimity is remarkable." Powell concludes that the memoir is "nice, reserved and long. And [Rice] doesn't try to pin the blame on anyone but herself."

Getty
Show Hide image

Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times