Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Beinart, Tom Service and Dana Spiotta.

The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart

The leading article in this week’s New Statesman warns that opportunities for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are increasingly endangered. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the New Statesman, considers Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, in which the former New Republic editor charts his increasing disenchantment with Israel. It is a typical narrative of the problematic relationship held between American Jews and Israel. Wheatcroft observes that Beinart remains a Zionist, sends his children to an Orthodox school and believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land”. All of which “makes him an unlikely dissident”. But Beinart’s book is indicative of the gulf that has opened “between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official 'Jewish establishment'”. Wheatcroft does examine what he believes is a major flaw in Beinart’s line of thinking, “that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour” – a view that Wheatcroft is keen to dispel.
Jonathan Rosen, writing in the New York Times, considers how The Crisis of Zionism, in a spirit of evangelical zeal, “sets out to save the country by labelling many of its leaders racist, denouncing many of its American supporters as Holocaust-obsessed enablers and advocating a boycott of people and products from beyond Israel’s 1967 eastern border”. Beinart compresses complexity, writes Rosen: “he minimises the cataclysmic impact of the second Intafada; describes Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza not as a gut-wrenching act of desperation but as a cynical ploy to continue the occupation by other means; belittles those who harp on a Hamas charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews the world over”. In doing so he runs the risk of rendering his book politically impractical, playing down the “magnitude of the Palestinian demand for a right of return – not to a future Palestine but to Israel itself, which would destroy the Jewish state”.
Alana Newhouse, writing in the Washington Post, observes that The Crisis of Zionism “is most interesting when seen for what it is, at least in part: a political stump speech for an attractive young candidate who is seeking the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews”. Newhouse cannot subscribe to an argument that is “largely a restatement of Zionist dovishness”. “From this book”, Newhouse writes, “you would think that Palestinians are just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own; and no responsibility for the miserable impasse of the conflict”.

Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras by Tom Service

The qualities of the practice of conducting, and the musical magic it continues to wield, are examined in this first book from classical music journalist Tom Service. It is an account “brimming with enthusiasm”, writes Suzy Klein in the New Statesman.  “Service’s passion is evident from the opening page” - moving from his first orchestral experience aged six to exploring several contemporary conductor-orchestra pairings. Service examines how orchestras can serve as “barometers of social and political change” – the ruthless maestro brand exemplified by Herbert von Karajan was nothing less than a product of the Nazi era. Since then, “a maestro must earn respect, not demand it”. Despite Service’s efforts, none of his subjects “elucidates the fundamental question of what makes an exceptional, alchemical conductor”, but otherwise the blend of analysis and VIP rehearsal access makes for an excellent exploration of “why orchestral music has such power and how a group of musicians can harness it”.
Sameer Rahim, writing in the Telegraph, has similar praise for Service’s exploration of the relationship between conductors and the musicians they lead. Conducting delivers technical information, but for the best, “there is no strict line between technique and feeling”. A prime example is Valery Gergiev, the risk-taking principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, whose explosive, batonless gestures “allows his powerful instinct to trump the technicalities”. The maestro as dictator may be in the past, but “no matter how brilliant each individual musician, you need a conductor to shape a performance”.
The Economist's reviewer highlights Service’s insights gained by the many hours spent “not just in concerts given by the six conductor-orchestra pairs taken as his subject, but in observing them in the rehearsals beforehand and quizzing members of the orchestra about their side of the experience”. Interviews with the conductors themselves may not be inherently revealing, but rather it is Music as Alchemy’s blend of perspectives which convey something of “the murky process by which orchestras and conductors build a bond of mutual trust”. This kind of trust relies above all on listening, and the reviewer finds that “one of the most interesting pictures to emerge from the book is that of the conductor as a kind of chief listener”.

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta’s third novel, a finalist at the National Book Critics Circle awards in the United States, has as its central theme the relationship between authenticity and fabrication. The portrayal of the relationship between Denise, an office manager in her late forties, with her older brother Nik, a reclusive post-punk musician, uses "conventional strategies of selection and emphasis, with a period of crux taking place against a backdrop of events both recent and long past,” writes Leo Robson in the New Statesman. The novel is potentially Denise’s reply to her brother’s “Chronicles” – Nik’s fantasy project in which he has recorded an alternate version of his life, “the reviews, positive and negative, that his barely distributed experimental music will never receive”. Denise’s memoir confronts her mother’s mortality, her own ageing and reflections on history and memory. “Postmodern anxiety about such humanist illusions as origins and endings and epiphanies, though no more than cursory, does the novel a fair amount of damage”, Robson writes. “Spiotta wants to incorporate scepticism about the stories we tell ourselves but doesn’t go as far as insisting that we give them up and the novel is incapable of offering cleverness without a sense of shame, candour without an air of apology”.
Jenny Turner, writing in the Guardian, finds in Stone Arabia a “”rancid America” story of beauty and talent, failure and disappointment”. Stone Arabia makes for a hazy combination – “the random-looking title, a cathartic road-trip, the brilliant brother who seems to have gone wrong” – elements that are similar in structure to Spiotta’s 2001 novel Lightning Field. There may be artistic reasoning behind this. “Does artistic work have to meet an audience, the marketplace, before it can be said to have punched its ticket?” Turner writes, “Can it ever be allowed, in “rancid America”, not to care about the market, but to strive and long for something bigger and beyond?”
Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, considers how Stone Arabia’s thread is “Identity – and the very American belief that individuals can invent or reinvent themselves anew here”. Spiotta “lavishes on Nik all her eclectic, deeply felt knowledge of music and pop culture”, Kakutani writes. “While her sceptical, appraising eye lends a satiric edge to her portrait of this wilful narcicssist, her understanding of his inner life also fuel-injects it with genuine emotion”. But beyond this is something deeper – “not just alienation, but a hard won awareness of mortality and passing time”.
Herbert von Karajan: the maestro as dictator (Photo: Getty)
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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.