Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Chad Harbach, Edmund White and Roger Scruton.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

In the Guardian, Theo Tait praises a book that took Chad Harbach ten years to write. "It's easy to see why The Art of Fielding has done so well: it is charming, warm-hearted, addictive, and very hard to dislike... [It] feels like a novel from another, more innocent age. It revels in themes that have been unfashionable in literary fiction for generations - team spirit, male friendship, making the best of one's talents. In its optimism and lack of cynicism, in its celebration of the wide open spaces of the Midwest and its confidence in the deep inner meaning of baseball, it is a big American novel of the old school."

The New York Times named The Art of Fielding one of the 10 best of 2011. Michiko Kakutani writes: "It is not only a wonderful baseball novel... but it's also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer." In addition to making the baseball allegory fresh, Harbach also "has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds." The novel "possesses all the pleasures that an aficionado cherishes in a great, classic game: odd and strangely satisfying symmetries, unforeseen swerves of fortune, and intimations of the delicate balance between individual will and destiny that play out on the field."

Elena Seymenliyska in the Telegraph also has praise for Harbach's novel, calling it "deliciously old-fashioned: it simply gets on with the business of creating vivid, layered characters and telling a good, engrossing story."

In this week's New Statesman Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the American author about his debut novel. Harbach says two of the principal influences on him when he was writing it were Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: "They are two of the only novelists who have really thought about the relation of sport to larger society" DeLillo's End Zone and Wallace's Infinite Jest were, he says, "models" for The Art of Fielding.

Jack Holmes and his Friend by Edmund White

In the Financial Times, Simon Schama writes that the novel, which explores gay-straight friendship, "doesn't really go anywhere. It won't change your life or introduce you to a higher state of consciousness but while you're in the thick of it, it couldn't be more fun."

David Annand in theTelegraph writes that Jack Holmes and his Friend falls short of White's seminal 1981 novel A Boy's Own Story. "Unfortunately, for admirers of White's style, it is the sentences that are diminished: they haven't the usual verve or ambition, and many are surprisingly literal, lacking the rich textures of his best work. Though it lacks the instant, indulgent sensuousness of A Boy's Own Story, this new novel achieves a greater clarity and a deeper empathy, and for these grown up virtues it should be justly celebrated."

In the Observer, Henry Hitchings takes a similar view, concluding: "White writes supple (albeit occasionally loose-limbed) prose about an age when gay love was often treated with either contempt or flippancy. The result is a book that is engaging and erotic, yet lacks the exuberance and sensuality of his best work - and a sense of urgency."

Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet by Roger Scruton

In the New Statesman, Richard Mabey argues: "Green Philosophy is a book about mindset, not praxis. In one sense, it is an attempt to give a green gloss to the Conservatives' 'big society.'" Mabey points out that the author "scarcely mentions those poor, ravaged regions of the planet - South America, Africa, south-east Asia - where the worst environmental crises are brewing" and notes that "his dogged ideological insistence on interpreting environmental history as a series of stand-offs between state bureaucracy and the free market results in a catalogue of errors."

Caroline Lucas in the Independent observes: "With the Tory leadership distancing itself from the environmental agenda it had courted so keenly before the last election, and the Coalition government dangerously divided over green policies, philosopher Roger Scruton's thoughtful study on environmentalism in the conservative tradition arrives at a timely moment." Lucas writes that although the book "is beautifully written and ambitious in its scope, it is also curiously old-fashioned, unashamedly tribal and deeply contradictory. Scruton himself admits that his approach is 'more philosophical than practical' - and many of his lines of inquiry simply take the reader around in circles."

In the Telegraph, Louise Gray writes: "Disappointingly, Scruton fails to take on the more strident sceptics such as Christopher Booker, James Delingpole, Nigel Lawson et al who question the science and who, in the eyes of many, have held back the Right from being taken seriously on this issue." Lucas criticises Scruton's "attacks on the 'loony Left,'" writing that "at times Scruton sounds more unhinged than the most ridiculous Daily Mail headlines. Does he really believe that children will no longer be allowed to play on swings because of 'elf and safety' gone mad? And if he thinks Greens are all sandal-wearing killjoys, well, he just needs to get out more."

The New Statesman's Jonathan Derbyshire recently sat down with Roger Scruton to discuss Green Philosophy and conservative environmentalism. Read the full interview here.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

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