Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Evgeny Morozov, Gillian Shephard and Diana Pinto.

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

In his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov looks at how “big data” and “smart” technologies may not be the ideal solution to human problems. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers says Morozov is at his most compelling when discussing politics and the dangers of what he terms “technological solutionism”. “He quotes some unsettling statements from various figures in the tech world promising to do for politics what did for books”. Morozov points out that we can’t rate politicians on a five-star scale: politics is a messy business, with no “right” way of doing things. Written as a follow-up to his previous book The Net Delusion, in which he dispelled the notion that the internet was an ally of political freedom, Morozov argues that perfection is neither achievable nor desirable for politics. Chivers, while accepting his argument, criticises his “hyperactive, shouting tone” and says it makes it difficult to trust him: “I haven’t read, or even heard of, half the people whose internet 'solutionism' he decries, but it’s hard to believe they’re the simple-minded fools that he claims; some suggestion that he has taken their arguments seriously would make his own that much more forceful.”

Writing in the Guardian, Steven Poole stresses that although Morozov is quick to attack other “new-media cyberhustlers”, his attacks go deeper than righteous ridicule. “He also interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cyberhustler, and finds that, often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields.” Adding that Morozov “admirably and triumphantly” fulfils the purpose of the book, which is to warn against running politics like a start-up based on “big data”,  Poole praises Morozov as “one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism”.

The Real Iron Lady: Working with Margaret Thatcher by Gillian Shephard

Whether or not you agreed with her, everyone in Westminster recognised that Margaret Thatcher was a force to be reckoned with. Gillian Shephard attempts to reveal the hidden personality of the first female Prime Minister, speaking to everyone from trade unionists to her eventual successor John Major. The Independent’s Sonia Purnell calls the book “clumsily assembled and, at times, repetitive”.

Despite pointing out these shortcomings, Purnell goes on to say that “it paints a compelling picture of how the disrespect of male colleagues in her early days of power contributed to the creation of the warrior-queen version of Thatcher demonised ever since.” First-hand accounts are used to re-construct the dramas of her political life; from the Falklands war through to the miners’ strike.

The Guardian’s Tristram Hunt describes the book as “clumsily written, shoddily edited, and often embarrassingly reverential". Going on to say it is “too hagiographical” and “offers little sense of the ideology of Thatcherism, or a truthful analysis of the breakdown between prime minister and parliamentary party.” He argues that it simply serves as a retort to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher as a “dotty old pensioner” in last year’s The Iron Lady and is an act of “beatification for the blessed Margaret.”

Both critics see a pervasive comparison with today’s Conservative-led coalition lingering beneath the surface, as Purnell describes the parallels between Thatcher’s own rise to power and the apparent leadership ambitions of current Home Secretary Theresa May. Hunt believes it to be “a marked critique of David Cameron's premiership”, suggesting that  “everything the heroic Mrs T was in office, the callow Old Etonian is not.”

Israel Has Moved by Diana Pinto

In this revealing portrait of the new Israel, Diana Pinto presents a country simultaneously moving forward and backward, looking outward and turning in on itself. Writing in the Financial Times, John Reed says Pinto “offers broader reflections on shifts in the nation’s psyche, sometimes to brilliant and startling effect”. Reed describes the book as “more travelogue and philosophical musing than reportage”, owing to its author being a policy analyst. The “effect is of enjoying an engaging and trenchant dinner party conversation with an intelligent traveller brimming with impressions from a trip”.

Pinto takes the reader on a journey from desolate, occupied Palestinian territory tocosmopolitan Tel Aviv, a wealthy bubble of business and nightlife, only a few kilometres from the site of conflict.

The Independent’s Linda Grant says Pinto’s strength as a writer is “her penetrating understanding of what lies beneath the surface of the clichés”. Grant praises her ability to “describe a recognisable Israeli mindset which owes nothing to the discourse of post-colonial narratives but rather a unique viewpoint, developed out of centuries of statelessness”. Nevertheless, she finds Pinto's inability to maintain the reader’s interest a serious shortcoming, and wishes the book had instead been “a lengthy article in a magazine like Foreign Policy, for Pinto's ability to think entirely trumps her capacity to describe and engage”.

Margaret Thatcher in 1974. (Photo by Michael Ward/Getty Images)
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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis