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.

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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war