Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Runciman, Margaret Drabble and Iain Sinclair.

The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman 

Despite a troubled past, democracy has become the accepted mode of modern politics in many parts of the world. However, in recent times, perhaps due to the difficulties in transitioning into this form of government in the Middle East and the miseries caused by the crash of 2008, democracy has witnessed a bit of a loss of confidence. David Runciman seeks to address this lack of confidence by explaining democracy’s inherent problems. The Confidence Trap suggests that the problem is confidence itself. Government officials defer resolving problems because they are too confident in a system that is adaptable and resilient in crisis, and so allow their problems to escalate. Runciman sees this pattern repeating in history and points to seven crises as examples.

Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian is impressed with the book. He finds Runciman’s book “lucid” and “original”. He argues that Runciman’s thesis is a “paradoxical idea that the author repeatedly expresses through paradox.” Such as the lasting success of democracy produced through lots of little failures or a leadership crisis that allows a nation to end up with the right one. The book is “presented with a bracing intellectual confidence” that is devoid of graphs and conventional data, rather it is written “colloquially” and “does not shy away from the sweeping generalisations.” The book is “ambitious, in the best sense of that word.” Freedland does identify that Runciman does not offer any answers but thinks that answers perhaps do not exist. All in all, Runciman is a “compelling guide.”

Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London, is disappointed with the book for the very reasons it is praised by Freedland. In his review for the New Statesman, he describes the book as “less a work of research or scholarship than a commentary on events, strong on paradox and epigram rather than analysis and written in a somewhat rhapsodic style, which occasionally becomes wearisome.” Statements can be “vacuous” and worse Runciman fails to address the main challenges faced by democracies today: how they can be “induced to defend themselves”.

In the Financial Times, Mark Mazower recognises that despite the books global remit it is primarily concerned with America. For him, this myopia diminishes the discussion of the resilience of democracies in adapting to crises when compared to other polities. He highlights the lasting success of dynasties (the Ottoman and Habsburg), the adaptability of fascism and even of Soviet communism. However, the focus on America reminds us that there is “an international dimension to this subject that is closely connected to American self-perceptions” as the “world’s first real democracy” and has having the responsibility to pump “freedom around the world.” Despite Runciman remaining “relatively sanguine” about the issue, by the end he is “sounds worried about the problem of overconfidence”.

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Dame Margaret Drabble’s first novel in almost decade follows a young anthropologist named Jessica Speight and her daughter Anna, the titular “pure gold baby”. Set in the swinging sixties, this is a novel about single parenthood and a child with an invisible disability. 

The Independent is thrilled with Margaret Drabble’s return to fiction with a “poignant but ultimately uplifting tale.” The review sees the question of dependency at the heart of the novel: whether Anna has given Jess an excuse to “shy away from the hardships of raising funds to work in the field?” And how “Jess copes being away from Anna is even more interesting than how Anna copes away from her mother.” Eleanor, the novel’s narrator and Jess’s friend, has been given a “conversational style that sometimes slips into a conspiratorial tone.” She mentions in passing characters and events whose true implications are made apparent later in the novel; this is praised as being “much like in fragmentary, real-life conversations.” Drabble’s prose is “graceful and flowing” even though she has a penchant for the word “proleptic” which “appears several times in the novel”. In the end, this is a “quiet, contemplative ... anthropological study of women”.

Jane Shilling at the Telegraph finds parallels between this novel and Drabble’s third, The Millstone (1965). Both are about single mothers who are supported by an “affectionate community of friends in Seventies north London.” She stresses that the novel is about “themes, rather than character.” Returned memories do not lead to revelations and are just another image in the collective fragment pile which is the novel. Shilling notes that “in some ways [Drabble’s] current novel resembles a jigsaw; its ambitious themes of parenthood, innocence, wounded children, anthropology, literature, madness, ageing, illness and love juxtaposed to form, if not quite a coherent pattern, then something tantalisingly close to it.”

Private Eye remains wholly unconvinced by Drabble’s new work. The Eye recognises that Drabble is returning to a subject matter where she has previously been a virtuoso, most notably in The Millstone. However, the difference is with this encounter the baby is “profoundly, though ineluctably, backward” and that “the whole idea of narrative locomotion seems, equally mysteriously, to have deserted [Drabble].” Drabble preaches “an exemplary tolerance while remaining horribly snooty about the wrong kind of opinions,” and turns “downright disdainful about nearly every manifestation of popular culture in sight.” Eleanor’s narrative inconsistencies are also amiss; they involve “the juxtaposition of a mystifying amnesia about dates, relationships and personal histories ... with almost total recall of nursery rhymes and bygone brands of confectionery.” Most damning of all, perhaps, this is a book in which “hardly anything happens”.

American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light by Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair’s recent literary forays have been in the ambitious psychogeography of London. He walked around the M25 in London Orbital and followed in the footsteps of the poet John Clare in Edge of Orison. His new book leaves London behind and tracks his ventures to America in search of authors who were an influence to him in his childhood – most of whom fall into either the Beat writers or the Black Mountain Poets. 

The Sunday Times's John Self is complimentary. He is impressed with the long line up of authors in the book: William Burroughs, “the man who sold Jack Kerouac’s raincoat to Johnny Depp”, Greogory Corso, Alexander Baron and even Albert Speer. Sinclair holds up “names faded and talents forgotten.” His prose particularly impresses, Self describes Sinclair's ability as “undimmed, particularly his writing about place.” The traits that typify Sinclair are “history, localitlity” and “an eye for absurdity” all which are neatly present in his final journey in England: “from Hastings to Hackney, by swan pedalo.”

Kevin Jackson at the Literary Review explains that this book is Sinclair’s odyssey. Whereas all his previous books have been about staying put, in this he goes out into strange territory. As an Iain Sinclair fan he is unsurprised than the outcome is far from straightforward, it is well supplied in Sinclair’s long digressions “and dozens of short ones”. In the book’s scope, however, there are also some moments that are “grimly comic and captured in deft, memorable phrases”, specifically Sinclair’s trip to visit the elderly Burroughs. The book uses quotes sparingly and “is much better on the spirit than the letter of [the authors’] works.” Fundamentally, it is “less than bracingly, intoxicatingly written”.

“The virtuality of everything Iain Sinclair knows is powdered in the dust and refracted through the desuetude of the British experience,” writes Iain Finlayson in the Times, “it is the fulcrum on which he spikes this psalter of praise to the memory of Hip.” In this short but verbose review Finlayson maintains: “The fast shutter speed of Sinclair’s prose pins the dated cultural moments, his ventriloquism refracts the period jargon; the pinwheel of his imagination fires off the tangential topographical associations.” He seems to like the book.

Margaret Drabble in the study of her London home in July 1974. Photo: Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty Images.
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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser