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 Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump