In the Critics this week

Autumn books with A M Homes, Jonathan Powell, John Banville and others.

It’s the Autumn Books special in the Critics section of this week's New Statesman. Our lead book reviewer is Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. Powell reviews Kofi Annan’s memoir Interventions. “I don’t think Annan has anything to apologise for,” Powell writes. “The problem is not with the man but with the international community.” Former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd also considers the future of the international community in his review of Governing the World by Mark Mazower. “The UN has endorsed the notion of ‘the responsibility to protect’”, Hurd notes. “As on many similar occasions, the baptismal name is misleading. The responsibility to protect is not so much about protection as about intervention.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to D T Max about his biography of the late David Foster Wallace. Max considers the charge that Wallace fabricated details in his non-fiction. “David’s stuff is taught in journalism classes and I do feel a bit uneasy about that,” he confesses. “Of all David’s pieces, the falsifications that bother me most are in his long essay on John McCain”.

In her “Personal Story”, the American novelist A M Homes explains how growing up amid the tumult of Nixon-era Washington DC shaped her fiction. “It was a strange time and place to be a child,” she writes. “A multi-layered existence with shifting standards, exceptions, and different rules for different people.”

Also in Autumn Books: the Business Editor of ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg, reviews John Gapper’s Wall Street thriller A Fatal Debt; former controller of Radio 4 Mark Damazer reviews How Do We Fix This Mess? by Robert Peston; historian Richard J Evans on History in the Making by J H Elliott; the NS’s pop critic Kate Mossman reviews Philip Norman’s biography of Mick Jagger; poet Christopher Reid on The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett; Linda Grant reviews Colm Toibin’s retelling of the story of Mary, mother of Jesus; and John  Banville pays truibute to Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, “the finest novel ever written by a far-right sympathiser”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Rachel Cooke reviews the BBC2 documentary I Was Once a Beauty Queen; and Antonia Quirke is entranced by a Radio 4 programme about the Irishness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Jonathan Powell, left, with his former boss Tony Blair (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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