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 Amazon.com 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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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

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 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism