Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Julian Barnes, Greg Bellow and David Goodhart.

 

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

The three stages of love - euphoria, passion and grief - between two 19th-century balloonists sets the tone for the first two parts of Levels of Life. Barnes lost his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, to brain cancer in 2008. The third part of the book is an exploration of Barnes’s despair.

Leyla Sanai in the Independent writes that this is “a book whose slimness belies its throbbing emotional power”. She sees the metaphors of flight and open skies standing in for the freedom and love that book details between the two balloonists, but also notices the personal feeling Barnes lets in: “there is no disguising the raw pain that pulses throughout; the solitary heartbeat of the one left behind”.

According to Sam Leith in the Spectator the raw emotion makes it a hard book to read: “There’s a trace of the hesitancy a reviewer feels towards such obviously personal material, but it also seems to reflect something in the book itself. Levels of Life is much more hermetic than it at first appears. You find yourself hazarding guesses at things because — again, to hazard a guess — not all the material you need to decode this book is available to the reader.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison, who knew Kavanagh personally for over 30 years describes the themes that run throughout the book: “The themes that preoccupy Barnes – love and ballooning (and grief and photography) – take a little longer to line up but discovering how they do is half the pleasure. We've work to do – not grief‑work such as the author's, but work all the same.”

They come together in the end in a personal outpouring: “Where the first two sections portray life in the air and on the ground, the searing 50-page essay that concludes the book describes descent – no upper air, no perspective, just darkness and despair.”

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow

Reviewing your own father’s life is not an easy task, but for retired psychotherapist Greg Bellow describing Saul Bellow, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, the stakes are higher still. According to the Observer’s Adam Mars-Jones, Greg Bellow doesn't meet the challenge. He criticises the book for “lacking literary weight”, having a “suspect tone from the first paragraph” and showing an “unacknowledged hostility”.

Jeremy Treglown in the Spectator is barely less pessimistic: “It isn’t the son’s fault that his powers of insight and articulation are less than Saul Bellow’s: whose aren’t? And of course if writing this narrative has proved helpful to him, fine. But publishing it wasn’t necessary, and reading it is frankly a struggle.”

In the centenary issue of the New Statesman, Leo Robson takes a less critical stance: “Greg Bellow has quite a monument on his hands and to his credit he refrains from slinging mud or poking warts ... If Greg Bellow conforms to a character type, it isn’t the father-killer but the spurned first-born.”

The British Dream by David Goodhart

Immigration is a touchy subject in British politics. But it's a subject David Goodhart, previously editor of Prospect magazine has tackled full on in his new book The British Dream, reviewed at length by Labour MP Jon Cruddas in the centenary edition of the New Statesman.

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph calls it an “exceptionally important” book in which Goodhart “has helped Britain end our long unhealthy period of silence about a great issue.”

Ian Birrell in the Observer, by contrast, found the book “disappointing” and was surprised to find one of his own articles used as a foundation for one of the its arguments. Birrell says Goodhart “twisted [his] words absurdly".

The work of mourning: Julian Barnes (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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