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A year in books

The literary highlights of 2012.

Hope: a Tragedy
Shalom Auslander, Picador, 352pp, £7.99

Solomon Kugel, the protagonist of Shalom Auslander’s scabrously funny debut novel is a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to the countryside upstate. Kugel discovers that the source of the unpleasant smell coming from his attic is Anne Frank, now a foul-mouthed octogenarian who complains bitterly about Elie Wiesel’s book sales. She is the embodiment of a history that cannot, or should not, be sentimentalised.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson,
Volume IV: the Passage of Power Robert A Caro
Bodley Head, 736pp, £35

The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s huge and riveting biography of Lyndon B Johnson takes more than 700 pages to deal with just six years of its subject’s career – 1958-64. The period covers his abortive attempt to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960; the vice-presidency (agony for a man who’d been aiming for the top job for almost 30 years); the assassination of John F Kennedy; and LBJ’s subsequent accession to the presidency.

Fire in the Belly: the Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
Cynthia Carr
Bloomsbury, 624pp, £25

Cynthia Carr’s biography of the American artist David Wojnarowicz is many things at once: a group portrait of the leading lights of the downtown art scene in New York in the early 1980s; an evocation of an urban landscape that succumbed long ago to the homogenising effects of gentrification; and a memorial to the thousands of New Yorkers who died from Aids (and official indifference to their plight).

Patrick Flanery
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £12.99

Absolution is the young American writer Patrick Flanery’s first novel. It is an assured and intelligent exploration of the growing pains of post-apartheid South Africa. Flanery’s protagonist is Sam Leroux, a young academic who returns home to write a biography of a literary grande dame named Clare Wald, who is also a veteran of the struggles against the old regime.

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach
Fourth Estate, 528pp, £8.99

Chad Harbach’s good-natured and charming first novel suffered from hasty comparisons with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom(made largely, it seemed, on the basis of there being scenes in both books involving a lost wedding ring). But, unlike Franzen, Harbach doesn’t lunge for world-historical significance. The Art of Fielding, a campus novel with a sporting theme, is much less solemn than Freedomand all the better for it.

The Patagonian Hare: a Memoir
Claude Lanzmann
Atlantic Books, 544pp, £9.99

Claude Lanzmann – the French writer, intellectual and documentary-maker – has had an extraordinary life. He was a member of the resistance as a teenager. He became Simone de Beauvoir’s lover in his twenties. He collaborated with Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre on the journal Les Temps Modernes, and later directed Shoah, a nine-and-a-half hour film about the Holocaust that is his masterpiece. There are gaps and blind spots in Lanzmann’s story (notably where the politics of the Middle East are concerned), and an impregnable amour propre, but it’s a tremendous tale all the same.

The New Few . . . Or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now
Ferdinand Mount
Simon & Schuster, 320pp, £18.99

Ferdinand Mount belongs to that growing band of penitent devotees of Margaret Thatcher who are now counting the costs of policies whose consequences they were unable to foresee. This is not to say that Mount thinks Thatcher should take sole responsibility for the development of the “new oligarchy”. “The dismal truth is that pretty much every government in the past 30 years has, wittingly or unwittingly, helped the oligarch’s cause in one way or another.”

Zadie Smith Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £18.99

Zadie Smith’s fourth novel has a brokenbacked structure that doesn’t quite work. However, it also contains some of the most exhilirating prose this anxious and restless writer has written – particularly in a spectacular, 80-odd-page stream-of consciousness opening section.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

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 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis