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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Why do the English celebrate Burns Night? In a word: Scotch

Here, surely, is a man who truly merits a whisky-soaked celebration.

Why do the English celebrate Burns Night? My question in no way demeans the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns: we commemorate his birth more enthusiastically than that of our own national bard, and the reason is clear and amber. Scotch, particularly single malt – the oak-aged barley spirit from a single distillery – is now almost infinitely various, and if countries from Japan to the United States enthusiastically ferment and age grains including corn, rye and wheat, the Scotch industry remains as unflustered as Burns by a doggerel-spouting rival.

As it happens, Burns did have such a rival, although only one person ever took the rivalry seriously. William Topaz McGonagall never lacked self-belief, despite crafting such immortal works as “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, which commemorates an 1879 railway catastrophe and ends thus:

 

. . . your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed.

 

Here, surely, is a man who truly merits a whisky-soaked celebration. Great poetry is its own intoxication, while writing of this sort, rather like the tragedy it commemorates, is a powerful reminder of the human fallibility that inspires many of us to drink.

Poor Wullie McGonagall was the grain whisky to Burns’s single malt. The former has its place and can be highly entertaining; the latter is intense and complex with very Scottish inflections. Even Burns’s name is an apt descriptor for a drink best taken with a “teardrop” of water, to lessen the fire and free the flavours. The industry has followed his example in burnishing the myth of Scotland, if frequently in a less poetic manner.

Glenmorangie has a distillery on the beautiful Dornoch Firth, an emblem on its bottle inspired by an eighth-century Pictish sculpture and, most recently, a 1990 special release beautifully crafted in spite of a terrible barley harvest the previous year. The whisky is great, rounded and fruity and makes an interesting comparison with the woodier 25-year-old limited edition that Lagavulin, off the opposite coast on the peaty island of Islay, has created to celebrate its bicentenary.

Scotch need not be so venerable. I recently tried and liked a lightly citrusy 12-year-old from Knockdhu distillery in Speyside called AnCnoc, although I can’t pronounce it.

I rather like McGonagall, even if he was both talentless and teetotal – unlike Burns, who indulged himself into an early grave. McGonagall was at least no hypocrite, while Burns fended off penury by becoming an excise officer, collecting whisky taxes and trying to apprehend the many smugglers who avoided paying any.

Life is an imperfect business, as Burns well knew, and it is this understanding, as well as our shared appreciation for the beverage he drank so freely and regulated so reluctantly, that inspires us to fete him each 25 January. In his honour, then, let us raise a dram, attack a haggis and leave him the last words:

 

Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!

What wad ye wish for mair, man?

Wha kens, before his life may end,

What his share may be o’ care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,

And use them as ye ought, man:

Believe me, happiness is shy,

And comes not aye when sought, man.

 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge