Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jimmy Connors, Jonathan Sperber and Sarah Churchwell.

The Outsider: My Autobiography by Jimmy Connors

The no-holds-barred autobiography of the notorious, yet talented tennis star. The book charts his rise from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ to Grand Slam glory. It is an unflinching account of life at the top and his journey there which has divided critics.

Tim Adams at The Guardian is unimpressed: “The Outsider has little of the tortured introspection of the best example of the genre, Andre Agassi's Open, or the self-aware wit of McEnroe's Serious. In its place is an examination of a legendary American pugnaciousness, which veers often, authentically, into boorishness or sentimentality.”

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Lattman also compares the book to Agassi’s “groundbreaking” memoir. It does not fare well. Lattman contends that the book does no favours for Connors, doing nothing "to dispel his reputation as a narcissistic, selfish loner.” He goes on to quip that the book is “in many ways, like Connors himself: irreverent and amusing, but not very ­likable.”

Julian Hall at The Independent is more positive: “I guarantee that after reading Jimmy Connors' autobiography you will want to pick something up and smash it. A tennis ball to be precise, and in a good way, not in a fit of pique.” For Hall The Outsider is best described as “a conversational and occasionally coy memoir.”

Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

An account of the life of Karl Marx which seeks to place the revolutionary thinker in a human context and distance his humanity from the polemical machine that emerged from and surround his work.

Tristram Hunt, writing for The Guardian, worries that to “distance him from present controversies about globalisation and capitalism... risks a predominantly Atlanticist perspective.” Sperber places Marx in perspective as a journalist struggling with the intellectual trends and social issues of his time, a task which yields “a compelling and convincing account.”

A review in The Telegraph by Ben Wilson heralds Sperber’s book as “refreshingly free from the dogma and partisan passion which bedevilled discussions of the great man,” and goes on to praise the detail used by Sperber to animate Marx’s education, upbringing, development and love life, saying “Marx breathes in these pages.”

For Jonathan Freedland at The New York Times, the Marx who emerges from Sperber’s account “will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics.” Freedland feels that in contrast to his stature, the man himself is far from the “timeless Marx,” and speculates that were he alive today, Marx “would be a compulsive blogger, and picking Twitter fights with Andrew Sullivan and Naomi Klein.”

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

In this document of social and literary history, author Churchwell rests The Great Gatsby on its possible real-life underpinnings; the 1922 murder of a wealthy Episcopalian minister and his down-at-heels mistress. Critical opinions differ on whether this construction holds up.

In his appraisal for The London Review of Books, Thomas Powers remains skeptical. He writes that “Churchwell might have justified her approach in either of two ways; by telling the Hall-Mills story with full treatment of the human drama,” or by arguing convincingly that Fitzgerald followed the case. He cedes Churchwell neither point; of the first strategy, he says “she treats the case more like a running joke,” and of the second, he simply sees no strong argument to claim that Fitzgerald was paying attention and that her thesis is, at best, “a weak maybe.”

Writing for The Guardian, Robert McCrum decides that Churchwell’s literary investigation “has come closer than most to unpicking the enduring mystery of Fitzgerald and his evergreen masterpiece,” and further praises Careless People as “a glittering diamond of brevity less than 60,000 words long.” He cautions that “the problem with forging a cast-iron relationship between life and art is that it can become absurdly reductive.”

In his review for The Telegraph, however, Nicholas Blincoe says of Careless People that "it rewinds the years and allows the reader to appreciate again just how well he reflected his times." McCrum is ultimately drawn in by the literary values inherent in Churchwell’s storytelling, though, and decides that “Churchwell’s decision to link them would seem preposterous if it did not work: it underscores again the essential messiness of the times, while providing a narrative structure to her patchwork account of the age.” 

Connors autobiography does nothing "to dispel his reputation as a narcissistic, selfish loner." Photography: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

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