Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Thomas Frank, Tessa Hadley and Bill Cash.

Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

In the Observer, Nick Cohen writes: "Considering what conservatives allowed financial markets to do, the fact that the right could be furious with anyone but itself is an astonishing story and one that Thomas Frank was born to cover." Cohen calls Frank " one of the best leftwing writers America has produced," and admits that "before I read this book, I assumed that the extremism of the Tea Party would guarantee Obama a second term, however dismal his performance in office had been. Now I am not so sure."

In the New York Times, Michael Kinsley observes that Pity the Billionaire "is not the world's most subtle political critique. But subtlety isn't everything. Frank's best moments come when his contempt boils over and his inner grouch is released." Of Frank's criticism of Obama, Kinsley writes that the President "deserves a bit more credit from the left than Frank is willing to give him." Kinsley concludes: "It would have been nice to know a bit more about where Thomas Frank is coming from. Otherwise, he starts to sound like those Tea Party people whom he rightly mocks for being very, very angry with no idea why or what to do about it."

Mark Greif, in this week's New Statesman, argues that Frank fails to make the case that the US Tea Party movement articulates the genuine grievances of ordinary Americans: "What matters about the Tea Party is not that it represents the grief of ordinary Americans at vanished savings, lost jobs and underwater mortgages. On the contrary, it has articulated the fears of a small propertied class, past the age of educating children or raising families, which worries that it will have to pay a price for the rest of society, and which nurtures a pre-existing rage at immigrants and a liberal black president."

Gillian Tett in the Financial Times writes that the book "deserves to be read by right and left alike. It certainly does not pretend to be neutral or scientific; Frank is an avowed liberal and fierce critic of the Republicans. But the thesis is provocative, and the book is witty and highly readable."

Married Love by Tessa Hadley

In the Independent, Rachel Hore reads the stories in Hadley's new collection as "movie clips of lives in transit, their small shifts of focus yielding up flashes of psychological insight." "Her tales, told in light, deft prose, are engagingly lifted by humour." Hore praises the variation in form and observes that "Hadley's endings are rarely neatly tied; it's as though she prefers to leave her readers to revisit and work everything out themselves. This nearly always delivers rich pleasures."

In the New Statesman, Olivia Laing writes: "Hadley's facility with changes in emotional weather is matched by a knack for aphoristic expression." She draws comparisons with the work of Chekhov, observing that "[a]s in Chekhov, there is a sense, in this deliberate understatement, that one is seeing the world as it is, unadorned and unconcerned".

Edmund Gordon in the Observer calls Hadley's prose style "delicate, restrained, sometimes erring on the side of formality; her narratives chart upheavals of the heart with earnest attention to psychological development. The world she writes about is ethnically homogenous but social distinctions are microscopically observed." Gordon calls Hadley "one of the most clear-sighted chroniclers of contemporary emotional journeys" and concludes that "she excites... in the freshness and variety of her perceptions, the way she uses established techniques to tell us urgent truths about the here and now."

In the Spectator, Philip Womack argues that Hadley is "one of the most interesting writers around... This collection shows a writer quietly growing in style, perception and grace. She conveys to the reader that rare ability to see completely into someone else's head."

John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator by Bill Cash

Tristram Hunt in the Guardian reveals that Cash is actually a distant cousin of Victorian statesman John Bright. "The result is a welcome biography of the remarkable Quaker, orator and agitator behind the repeal of the Corn Laws, the 1867 Reform Act, and the mid-19th century spirit of pacific internationalism." Hunt calls the biography "a meditation on the nature of true, authentic conservatism" and remarks that it "often reads as a cumulative series of intense, male friendships between Bright and such people as Gladstone, Disraeli and Chamberlain."

Writing in the Spectator, Jane Ridley calls the biography "an oddly old-fashioned account. Cash is not interested in exploring Bright's ideas about democracy, for example, in the context of the time. He makes little of Bright's private life. Bright suffered a major breakdown in 1856, brought on by his unpopularity for opposing the Crimean War, and he retired from public speaking for two years; but the author makes no attempt to probe this puzzling episode."

Hunt concludes that the author "spends too little time on situating Bright within his times... The political life - masterfully recounted - can sometimes feel overbearing. This book is as much about Cash as Bright."

George Eaton in this week's New Statesman calls the biography "thoughtful and perceptive" and praises Cash's attempts to "rescue Bright from obscurity". Eaton draws on the similarities between the two men, notably their commitment to civil liberties, parliamentary sovereignty and backbench independence. Eaton concludes that Bright "would surely have appreciated Cash's intellectually subtle and deftly written work. At last, his extraordinary life has the biography it deserves."

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.