Gruff Rhys live at the Barbican, London. Bertrand Langlois/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 1 July

The critics’ verdicts on Tristram Hunt, Gruff Rhys and Leslie Jamison.

Ten Cities That Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt’s impressive CV as television historian and lecturer turned Labour MP is more master than “jack of all trades”, judging by the recent reviews of his latest book Ten Cities That Made an Empire. Hunt’s analysis of the rise and fall of the British Empire travels meticulously and ambitiously through different cities, beginning at the Boston Tea Party and ending with the impact of Liverpool’s vast exports.

The particular cities selected by Hunt for analysis, ranging from Dublin to Calcutta, are censored by the Independent, with Justin Huggler remarking “this is not a comprehensive survey of the British Empire. It barely touches on British colonialism in Africa beyond Cape Town ... or the Middle East, and Singapore only gets a mention in the Hong Kong chapter.” Surely one of the inevitabilities of a BuzzFeed-worthy format of ten cities is the limited number, and as the Observer's Robert Service concedes, “No book can deal with everything”, proving that what Hunt may lack in breadth he makes up for in depth.

Hunt’s objective approach to sensitive matters such as the slave trade and other debilitating aspects of colonialism is derided by The Observer as “a middle position between the two sides” adding that Hunt “dislikes any cut-and-dried analysis that suggests that the effects of British rule were wholly good or wholly bad for the subject peoples.” Michael Gove’s support of Hunt in the Times takes the view that the historian’s distanced narrative is “clever, stylish, carefully balanced ideologically so as not to give offence to vigorous partisans on either side of the debate and a pleasure to spend time with.” Hunt’s impartial gaze, while frustrating for some, demonstrates that his interest lies not in the dichotomy of condemning or rejoicing the British Empire but instead on exploring how colonialism transformed the urban landscape.

American Interior by Gruff Rhys

On an “investigative concert tour” throughout the USA, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys retraces the journey of his distant ancestor, John Evans, who sought to find the Madogwys, a fabled tribe of Native American Welsh-speakers. Although Evans never found the Madogwys, during his journey up the Mississippi river he created a map which would be used by Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition and, two centuries later, plots the points for Gruff Rhys’ own artistic journey in American Interior.

Rhys’ ambitious project takes a multimedia approach, appearing in four forms: book, album, film, and app, all named American Interior. Each form allows Rhys to tell the tale of his and Evans’s parallel journeys from a different angle. The book was praised by the Independent’s James Attlee as “charming and entertainingly written”, while the Guardians John Harris applauds a book which “brims with verve and fascination”. Harris recognises the risks of Rhys’ project: relating two journeys separated by two centuries “could easily go wrong”, but Harris assures the book “actually soars, thanks to three things: the strength of Rhys’s writing, his talent for finding the extraordinary among the mundane and his grasp of the subject.”

Yet, for Paul Lester of the Express, John Evans’s journey is overwhelmed by historical detail, leaving the reader’s mind “scrambled by all the dates and names.” Lester describes the book as an “avalanche of minutiae” and “a barrage of facts, albeit leavened with Rhys’ wry humour and neat turns of phrase.” Lester’s lukewarm response shows that with ambition comes the risk of failure. Gruff Rhys, like John Evans before him, is mapping out new territory.

In the London Review Bookshop on July 15th, Gruff Rhys will be in conversation with Iain Sinclair, discussing the project.

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s ruthlessly honest book studies the emotional and physical complexities of pain, grounded as it is in personal anecdotes which aim to avoid over-generalisation. There is no thought she appears to censor, revealing that before an abortion she told herself to “answer every question like you’re clarifying a coffee order”, leaping onto other essays about breakups, visiting prison inmates and getting her nose broken by a man who stole her purse in Nicaragua.

Former NS features editor Sophie Elmhirst, writing in the Financial Timesplaces Jamison in an “alternative tribe – patron saint, David Foster Wallace – who try to encounter the world more gently.” Jamison attempts to write and live according to empathy, concluding one essay: “I want our hearts to be open.” Elmhirst sees Jamison “surprising even herself with the Disneyish sentiment” in a review which is affectionate towards and impressed by the “winningly honest” Jamison. However, the Guardians Brian Dillon takes issue with the sincere, sermon-like call for open-heartedness “Too many essays conclude, as “Grand Unified Theory” does, with trite expressions where it seems the expectations of the well-formed lit-mag essay have pressed too hard”. For Dillon, while Jamison’s attention to vulnerability is “exceptional”, solidifying her place in the “alternative tribe” of empathy, The Empathy Exams is “more of a retreat at the level of thought than that of style.”

Jamison’s work is repeatedly compared with Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls due to its popular culture references and unashamedly confessional tone. Her unique blend of inspiration, ranging from Axl Rose to Charles Dickens, is criticised by the New York TimesDwight Garner who commented that “one or two of her lesser essays find her swinging too frequently from quotation to quotation, as if from vine to vine.” Yet Garner ultimately defends Jamison’s mix of gory personal injuries - such as a maggot-infested ankle - with cloying clichés, concluding that “the prose contains not a shred of self-help imbecility.” The originality of Jamison’s self-criticism may inadvertently lead to some soul-searching of your own.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

ALAMY
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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