Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on James Salter, George Monbiot and David Goodhart.

All that is by James Salter

All That Is offers an intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive. The critics are divided over whether this is one of James Salter’s (87) best novels yet.

Leo Robson, writing in The New Statesman provides a balanced critique of Salter’s latest tale: “At times you recoil […] from the hard-boiled worldliness and the straitened conception of women and the lordly indifference to movements in the public sphere. But mostly, Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to be helpless.”

Geoff Dyer of The Independent resolves that Salter has created “a strange masterpiece”. Whilst his writing style can at first seem “a tad awkward”, this awkwardness is to be enjoyed once the reader gives themselves over to his “distinctive rhythms. Mastery, eventually, is an indifference to how things are meant to be done.”

The Guardian’s James Lasdun, on the other hand, believes Salter cannot yet be hailed a “great” writer. “He's a little too loftily impassive and perhaps a little too interested in creating crystalline verbal beauty, to compel the word "great", at least without strong reservations.” Nevertheless he concedes that Salter is “amazingly good.”

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

Feral is George Monbiot’s call for us to “rewild” our planet, to “love not man the less, but Nature more.” He passionately explains what environmentalists stand for as oppose to against.

For Sam Leith of The Spectator this peculiar and involving book — three-quarters exhilarating environmental manifesto, one quarter midlife crisis — has an enormous amount to recommend it.” Whilst there is much to digest and reflect upon, there is also “much to be excited by, and the odd bit to giggle at.”

Philip Hoare, writing in The Telegraph, has high praise for Monbiot’s continued displays of wit and irony. “As a passionate polemic, it could not be more rigorously researched, more elegantly delivered, or more timely.” The book’s “what ifs” are verging on “eccentric” but “we need such big thinking for our own sakes and those of our children.”

Frances Stonor Saunders of The Guardian is more witholding of admiration. Monbiot writes in a “gloomy mood, mourning the loss of the improbable bestiary that lies under Nelson's Column, and with it a world that was once rugged and wild and big.” He also fails to address questions on how to “calibrate human demands with the ideology of the wilderness.”

The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration by David Goodhart

According to David Edgar’s Guardian review Goodheart “seeks to challenge what he sees as leftwing myths about immigration.” Whereas Goodhart argues that the rise of the National Front and other examples of British racism have been widely over-emphasized, Edgar points out the sheer numbers of racially-motivated violence, which beggars Goodhart’s notion of an overly-liberal attitude to immigration.

Jon Cruddas’ New Statesman review supports Goodhart, writing that “by closing down the argument” via knee-jerk accusations of racism “the left allowed the right to shape the tone and language of the immigration debate, particularly in England.”

Ian Thomson appears to split the difference in a review for The Telegraph. He concurs with Edgar about the problematics of Goodhart’s tone and self-identification, but like Cruddas, acknowledges British Dream’s usefulness as a “a useful guide to the vagaries of our mixed-up, mixed-race nation.” And by recounting the story of his immigrant mother, Thomson reifies diversity and adaptation, and attests to a kind of British hybrid vigor.

James Salter has published his sixth novel, aged 87. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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