Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Jon McGregor, Tony Judt and Faramerz Dabhoiwala.

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor

In the Telegraph, Catherine Taylor notes the historically and geographically specific settings of the stories in Jon McGregor's debut collection: "[They are set] mostly around the sparsely populated flatlands of eastern England ... like all his work, precisely of [their] place and time". Taylor admires the specificities of character and situation: "The pivotal moments appear almost insignificant, but brim with drama and import - the dangerous listlessness of a couple of baleful ex-cons living in a caravan on a wealthy eccentric's estate; a harassed vicar's wife's angry, helpless acceptance of a mysterious uninvited guest". Though these stories can sometimes seem like "exercises in the limitations of the form," Taylor argues, "empathy remain[s] intact".

Linda Grant wonders, in the Financial Times, whether McGregor will commit himself to prose or aphorism: "One story is no longer than a two-sentence joke: 'Chinese restaurants, launderettes, baked potato vans. These are a few of my favourite extractor-fans.' " But, Grant goes on, debates about how to categorise the work would be a distraction: "Must we rummage around for new definitions of fiction? To do so would be to limit the pleasure for most readers of this evocation of the fenlands and towns of Lincolnshire, a place apart, the sky criss-crossed by military aircraft and the sounds of practice bombing." For Grant, McGregor's strengths lie not in structured eloquence but in explorations of the rugged: "The lyrical is not present in 'fine writing' but in the evocation of the feeling on your face of damp air and the sight of abandoned telephone boxes, soggy fields and the conical chimneys of power stations."

The NS published a story from This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You earlier this year.

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder

Tony Barber, in the Financial Times, notes that Thinking the Twentieth Century, a series of interviews Timothy Snyder conducted with the late historian Tony Judt, is as much biography as it is historical analysis: "It escorts the reader through nine dimensions of Judt's life, each given its own chapter heading: Jewish questioner, English writer, political Marxist, Cambridge Zionist, French intellectual, east European liberal, European historian, American moralist and, finally, social democrat. As these labels indicate, Judt was no inhabitant of an ivory tower but an adventurous, restless man who rarely stayed in the same city or academic post for long."

But for all Judt's wit and spontaneity, a coherent outlook emerges here: "The central message of Thinking the Twentieth Century is what Judt calls 'the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it'. If Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were abominable gangsters and tyrants, the intellectuals who defended them were also culpable." Barber concludes: "He is right: knowledge of history, though no guarantee against abuses of power, contributes something to sustaining freedom. Tony Judt's life was a brave and vibrant tribute to this truth."

In the Guardian, Neal Ascherson is struck by the improvised quality of the Judt-Snyder dialogue: "The two are talking without notes, references or inhibitions. As they grow excited, one thing leads off into another, and Snyder - as editor - hasn't made the mistake of imposing too much thematic order. He did, however, persuade Judt that he ought to talk about himself and his personal life as well as his opinions." For Ascherson, there is a defining paradox in the book : "[Judt is] right, surely, that we should remember th[e 20th] century not only for war and Holocaust, but for the most magnificent humane achievement in history. Judt and Snyder ask each other if it would take disaster, even wars, to retrieve that spirit."

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Germaine Greer, in the Guardian, takes issue with apparent holes in Dabhoiwala's scholarship: "It is not enough to show that somebody somewhere was thinking thoughts that we might think of as amazingly progressive, without investigating whether those ideas were leavening public discourse or changing the attitudes of the multitude" she complains. She prods affectionately at Dabhoiwala rather than sternly upbraiding him: "Perhaps because he is a member of the other place, Dabhoiwala ignores the kinds of economic, social and demographic history that were systematised at Cambridge" . But soon she is back engaging in more abrasive critique, noting "He nowhere tests his basic assumptions against actual behaviour." Also missing is that essential historical tool, a grasp of chronology: "For Dabhoiwala, the whole of western history begins somewhere in the middle ages".

In the Financial Times, Lucy Worsley argues that looks can be deceptive: "The beautiful cover of The Origins of Sex shows a lady with an enigmatic smile, hiding her breast beneath a shawl. She's serene and lovely but there's nothing overtly sexy about her. You'll need to read what's inside to discover that she was the celebrity Georgian prostitute Kitty Fisher." Worsley wonders if Dahboiwala's overview of medical and theoretical thinking on sex, and his "laudable" inclusion of philosophical and literary sources, irnores more general questions of instinct and feeling: "Just occasionally", she allows, "there's a glimpse of them ... But this is a brief flash of colour amid a lot of grey."

The Origins of Sex will be reviewed in a future issue of NS.

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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses