Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Davenport-Hines, Mark Binelli and George Saunders.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders

Acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders darkly satirises modern life in his fourth anthology, The Tenth of December..Through the eyes and minds of ten characters, it envisages the gulf between dreams and reality in suburban America.

For Joel Lovell, of the New York Times, it is the “best book you’ll read this year”. Other critics’ praise is more reserved.

David Wolf, writing in The Observer, applauds the author’s skillful storytelling and “the exhilirating explosion of slang, neologisms and fake product names”. Saunders’ writing is at once comparable to Kurt Vonnegut’s “deadpan absurdism” and The Simpsons with his mix of “crude and sophisticated satire” and warm optimism. Nevertheless, Wolf criticises the inability of the MacArthur Genius Award winner to develop his writing style: “Saunders’ first collection for six years delivers all we expect but nothing new.” He added: “It seems like he’s stuck.”

In a review that charts Saunders’ backlash against his former idol and arch-rationalist Ayn Rand, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney welcomes the “sustained attack on the ideology of individualism.” For the Financial Times writer, it “overturns the belief that altruism is evil and instead suggests that helping others is the core component of our being”. The “blackly comic” book is only criticised for the tendency of the ten stories to seem formulaic because of Saunders’ distinctive style.

Alice Charles’ review for the Huffington Post UK, while commending The Tenth of December for its insight into characters’ minds, similarly criticises its repetitiveness. The habit of revisiting characters, themes and ideas “in a collection of just ten stories, feels like a bit of a cheat.”

 

The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli

Mark Binelli’s Last days of Detroit, soon to be reviewed in the New Statesman, tells the story of the boom and bust of what was once America’s fourth largest city. A former Detroit-native himself, the critics are divided on the perspective this brings for Binelli’s telling book.

Andy Beckett writes for the Guardian, and points to the author’s “busy, knowing prose” as the cause for the frequently quick and flippant tone; highlighted on one occasion where Binelli heedlessly skims over three decades of history exclaiming that “nothing much interesting happened in Detroit for the next thirty or so years …". Beckett is more critical of the beginning of the book, where he claims it reads more like a book proposal than a book itself, “authoritative but self-conscious, switching restlessly between past and present”, however he praises Binelli on his subsequent coverage of Detroit’s decline.

Rose Jacobs of the Financial Times finds that Binelli provides a charming narrative, managing to associate with the reader through personal asides and footnotes that show him to be “playing the tongue-tied non-expert”. As amiable as this may be at times, asserts Jacobs, the “ingenue’s approach” was also occasionally irksome. She concludes that the success of the book waivers, completely relying upon the subjects interviewed in each chapter.

Mick Brown’s review for The Telegraph commends Mark Binelli, deeming him “an assiduous reporter” and credits him with avoiding making the book an epitaph of Detroit. He identifies Binelli’s optimism amongst the ‘devastation porn’ that was the decline, but does query the lack of photographs that would have been so fitting in what is “otherwise an excellent book”.

 

An English Affair by Richard Davenport Hines

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Profumo affair, Richard Davenport-Hines bawdily retells how the war minister romanced the reputed mistress of a Soviet spy, Christine Keeler. In the throes of Cold War fever, politicians and the media convulsed at the idea of high-risk “pillow talk” that, followed by lying in the commons, forced resignation and framing, purportedly sowed the seeds of Macmillan’s demise.

The English Affair: Sex Class and Power in the Age of Profumo has divided critics who draw different lessons from the 1963 event.

Susan Elkin, writing in The Independent, praises Davenport-Hines as a “sparkling and compelling writer” and meticulous researcher. She draws parallels with the present: “it is hard to read his book without reflecting that we are still agonising over press freedom and the extent to which private lives are relevant to public office.”

By contrast, Vernon Bogdanor craves more context in the “racy read”. An English Affair re-runs a widely-told old story; “It is not entirely clear what purpose is served by further exhumation.” The New Statesman writer speculates that the affair thwarted chances of a Conservative election victory in 1964 that may have forced Labour to modernise 30 years before Blair. “The consequences are far more important than the cultural implications that Davenport-Hines analyses.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison nonetheless welcomes An English Affair as “an antidote to the current nostalgia for the period”. It exposes the “double standards of the early 60s” in which the welfare state, far from banishing spivs, encouraged a new generation of merchant adventurers who “transformed the capital with brutal phallic modernity”.

“For anyone who imagines things were better in the age of ‘never had it so good’,” writes Morrisson, “this book should be compulsory reading.”

Detroit River during a race, the Detroit skyline in the background. (Getty Images)
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times