Vodka politics by Mark Lawrence Schrad (Oxford Uiversity Press)


“Nikita Khrushchev was an oddly disarming fellow: five foot three and nearly as wide, with a face that seemed to be made from putty”.

THE big argument in this lush, brutal academic history of Russia is how vodka has fashioned its statecraft, set off revolution and doomed its people to centuries of poverty. How it might play in Russia is an interesting conversation:

– No, I don’t think we should get you a bear like Peter the Great, Vladimir. It would not play well on YouTube…

– Don’t upset yourself Vladimir, he is an American, a capitalist, a professor, he sits around reading all day, thinking, thinking…

– He’s probably a teetotaler too. You cannot distill 600 years of history into a bottle or two of vodka..

– I will check the tax revenues, it cannot still be as high as one third of all revenues from vodka, surely

– At least we have Coca Cola now. The new cold war – ethanol versus sugar. The Americans get drunker. We get fatter

– So where are our writers today?

– Quiet…

– Good, let them keep drinking, it is better that way

Both of Russia’s great titan authors Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were teetotal. It was a political abstention, a protest that between them spans the best part of two centuries. The state ownership of distilling has been a catastrophic vice reaching a nadir after Tsar Nicholas insisted on bringing in prohibition (it would not last). That helped spark the revolution. While the state was busy printing more roubles to pay for war, the peasant could still brew his own in the backyard and for a time in the desolate, bleak early 1920s a bottle of vodka was a more valid currency than money.

This is rich in memorable anecdotes from Ivan the Terrible’s drinking to a worse-for-wear Leonid Brezhnev being put to bed by President Richard Nixon and how Crime and Punishment was originally titled The Drunkards.

“Drunkeness is our great national tragedy,” said Andre Sakharov.

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The trip to Echo Springs by Olivia Laing (Canongate)

echo springs

“Here’s a thing. Iowa City, 1973. Two men in a car, a Ford Falcon convertible that’s seen better days. It’s winter, the kind of cold that hurts bones and lungs, that reddens knuckles, makes noses run. If you could, by some devoted act of seeing, crane in through the window as they rattle by, you’d see the older man, the one in the passenger seat, has forgotten to put his socks on.”

AS you gather from such an opening paragraph Olivia Laing has picked up a few tricks from the writers she follows – Scott Fitzgerald (to whom she ascribes the perfectly weighted novel in the Great Gatsby – Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. The two men in the car are Cheever and Carver.

Notionally the title suggests this is a book about why writers drink and chronicles the slide of all six into alcoholism but you could also make a case for other factors like having a father who shot himself, like smoking too much, like the drugs, like parents who were alcoholics, like their latent or not so latent homosexuality, or womanising, the insomnia: A whole cross section of what you might term as mid 20th century social diseases, a veritable smorgasboard in fact of white male, middle class, mid-life neuroses which have been given the aggrandisment of print. Is there a connection?

And all these central figues, being writers, knew each other as compatriots and also rivals. They kept diaries and wrote letters and probably, no certainly never, thought that a diligent reader like Olivia would take the time to study all their output and and give it a social conscience. In a sense she is your world’s worst hangover, a historical one.

She is involved. She is from an alcoholic family although not so po-faced as to not allow herself a beer here and there. She is embarking on a travelogue to find the places they lived and wrote to fill in the landscape of where and when, an odyssey that might put more than a few aspirant authors off the task in hand. Or to put that glass down.

Or maybe it was just the era. People drank more in the middle of the last century. Or it was remarked on more. But as she points out alcoholism – a subject of which she is as well read on as any of the writers themselves – was not really recognized as a condition until the 1970s.

She writes elegantly herself, precisely detailed not unlike Fitzgerald in her prose, and it is her personal observations that colour the text. The people she meets on the way intersect with the main biographies. I am not a great fan of what is termed the I school of journalism (I as in me, me, me) but she is a fan, sympathetic, curious, intelligent and loves her subjects as if they were coveted ornaments on her mantelpiece which they probably are.

The title is from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where Brick goes to the cabinet to try and get his ‘click’ from the echo spring. It is a very brave, beautifully researched, elegantly orchestrated mirror that reflects a time and asks a more serious question about writing and fame.

This passage describes the river where Ray Carver liked to fish: “Morse Creek cut out through a stretch of blackish sand, over stones that ranged in size from pebbles to boulders. It ran very fast now, maybe four feet deep, humping and shouldering, the surface breaking apart in pleats. I knelt and dipped my hand, wincing. It had come straight off the mountain snowmelt, old ice, clear and as astringent as gin”.

Why did they drink to excess, she asks, but unfortunately her chronicles explain rather too well why. Hemingway for one was being tracked by the FBI because of his Cuban connections. He eventually agreed to secret electrical therapy to dry out. He never wrote another word after that and shot himself 18 months later (as did his brother and sister, as had his father) A bad trade, you might think.



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The 7th function of language by Laurent Binet (Harvill Secker)


“Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.”

How good is this tornado of a novel?  The plot is wildly ambitious, an intellectual version of the da Vinci Code, and mixing real-life characters with fictional ones is controversial. But it is a hugely brilliant swirl through multi layers of plot, character deceit, sex, intrigue, violence. The writing for a start, even in translation, is sometimes achingly beautiful.. “Crumb is famous for for the way he drew women, with their big, powerful thighs, their lumberjack shoulders, their breasts like mortar shells and their mares’ arses.” The structure of story telling is fresh, surprising, novel and alive.

Essentially it is a book about the philosophy of language.  Almost overshadowing it is Paris of the 1980s described in forensic detail, not just the architecture but the dinner parties, the gay clubs, the snobby academics, the shadowy politics, the rough edges of class politics. And yet how piquant of our own (UK) politics is this line: “If the dominant class has lost its consent, in other words if it no longer directs but merely dominates…”

There is (at least one) astonishing sex – I might have liked to have known more of some the fabulous women he describes but then he assigns them off stage to decorative retirement after starring vignettes. And there is in part shocking, unexpected violence, but it is a grown up, intellectual book about ideas which also insinuate in subtle ways. The cars are always in semiotic code R5, 2C or 504. One of Simon’s girlfriends speaks in Italian, albeit just little trackable observations rather anything off-puttingly incomprehensible. We are in the world of words. Simon at one point even wonders if he is not in the novel, which of course he is, which is the point. The real fictional characters sometimes have to get an epithet to denote that they are a fiction, not real people. “For Little Red Riding Hood, the real world is the one where wolves speak”.

So carefully are some of these characters sculpted that when we finally get to meet, presidential candidate Francois Mitterand he does actually speak like a brilliantly cunning statesman. Others are caricatures, Jean Paul Sartre smoking, Jane Birkin flipping across a party floor. And some of the central characters were equally obsessed – Umberto Eco wrote a tome called Foucault’s Pendulum – we will meet both as we go. The imagery is also grounded in great reading and is delivered with panache, maybe even a smirk or more. The core unlikely relationship between academic professor Simon and his gruff, bumbling detective partner also moves agreeably with the overall romp of events. Overall it is grand satire.

I am tempted to read the original French version. This is a very French book, with Gallic presumptions, especially about language. Having done translations from the French, you are aware that French vocabulary is much smaller than English. It is a social code to be used in certain ways, and you might equally say the same about Italian, both of which suit these high faluting academic arguments. But English has much greater vocabulary so the balance is different,  the sense of being able to articulate is that much more developed and therefore precise. There is usually a word for anything, where in French or Italian they may need a whole phrase or paragraph to overcome the lack of words. Enter the French masters of bombast.  Sam Taylor’s translation is masterful on the linguistics – because yes they do come over as really interesting, the ultimate science in one thesis – but I tripped on a couple of food bits, they order a bacon sandwich when surely in Paris it would be jambon or ham, they order a bottle of chardonnay where surely a Frenchman would order burgundy, but in other areas he may, quite deliberately I suspect, have you stretching for your dictionary. Hard work but great fun.

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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper Collins)


“There was going to be a funeral.”


This is two books lashed together as one. The first is a detective story. We are gently introduced in a slow, west country way, to the cast of villagers. The net curtains are drawn back to give us a peek at their inner lives. All may not be as tranquil as we may have thought. Soon we meet the great detective at a point of his own crisis. By page 45 we know enough to start to guess…the compass of guilt starts to swirl.

I admire Anthony Horowitz’s career. Among other things he was the creator and writer on TV’s Foyles War and also a successful series for children with Alex Rider and is ghost writing the next James Bond film Trigger Mortis. This is, so far, more Midsomer Murders with which he was also instrumental, only the story has moved up country to the Cotswolds…

The tempo is 1955 … everything is shaping to be a pretty good episode, but then, and this is a literary wake up call, the Agatha Christie upgrade morphs into something fascinatingly different, perhaps even more so than the original story, certainly psychologically.

Look out, there is drama ahead. We move back to London and the contemporary. There is a story within a story, a faction in the fiction. It is tricky to review without giving too much away and spoiling the highly enjoyable conceit. There are tricks here about writing and publishing that make for enjoyable easy reading of a different grain.

On the other hand, had Susan Ryeland been such a whizz of an editor, would she have allowed so many opportunities to pass her by, so many good characters to be idle? You have to read the whole piece to discuss, in fact this would be excellent material for any reading group. My own take, without giving anything away, is that serious villainy is down to motivation…


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Bad business by Robert B Parker (No Exit Press)


‘Do you do divorce work’ the woman said.

‘I do,’ I said.

‘Are you any good?’

‘I am,’ I said.


THE late Robert Brown Parker wrote more than 40 Spenser detective novels plus another nine around the character Jessie Stone and six with Sunny Randall. Bad Business was his 31st, published in 2004. He was a master of dialogue, which accounts for 90% of this writing. Literally the story is told. Plot is all. Narrative is squeezed into tight paragraphs, often at less than one a page.

I suspect he has been allowed to drift out of fashion because of his tendency to take a sexually aggressive attitude to the women in his books. Verbal variations on the ‘50s airbrush glamour print.

“At the reception desk was a young woman with a big chest and a small sweater, who probably wasn’t devoted to golf or sailing”

This jingoist approach is at some odds with some of the recognition Parker has been given for bringing different races and sexualities into his stories from when he began in 1971. Maybe that was the stamp of the era.

Spenser’s first name is not revealed but he does have an encyclopedic knowledge of the greater Boston area. And how to read a liqor list. It is the details that etch a picture. …mornings kick start with coffee, then there might well be a beer for a stake out, on high occasions martini, of which he makes a personalized orange martini on days off. His women favour white wine – pinot grigio or reisling. He goes to a meeting. It is described as mine-was-a-scotch. Whisky is playing along. He does not like Campari…I am sure he does not trust men who drink Campari. He is particular, this is his university. His thesis might have been on minority beers.

The plot in this case swings through a series of increasingly unlikely well-i-nevers starting with a commission to trail an adulterous husband which has the first twist when Spenser finds that his client is also being followed and then well-i-never so is the mistress…after passing through a fair few revolving doors we end up Agatha Christie style in a room with potential suspects and reprobates whose secrets are swiftly eviscerated. The loose ends are not so much tied up, as put into a paper bag and chucked in the bin.

“The silence got long. No one said anything. No one went anywhere. Lance drooled a little and O’Mara rested his eyes some more. I knew what had happened now…”

Spenser is valiantly honourable. He does not seem even to be concerned about getting paid, not as much as he worries about getting justice. He is the small guy, the regular guy, someone to count on, someone just a bit smarter.

There are curious autobiographical overlaps with the role of the dog, and the nature of the relationship with Susan, as wiki explains here.

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My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Penguin)


“There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in hospital for almost nine weeks”

THE thing about writing solely on a macro level is that there is no horizon over which the sun can set, there is no doorknob to turn, no door to open, the cast have no faces. You swap the human condition for a human condition.

Our Lucy of the title goes to the dance as it were, but she does not actually, er, dance. She just lies around in a hospital bed fantasizing about the kindness of her doctor and listening to her mother recant tales of broken marriages.

I did enjoy this little riposte to the self indulgent wingeing from her mother:

“Lucy Damn-dog Barton. I didn’t fly across the country to have you tell me that we are trash. My ancestors and your father’s ancestors were some of the first people in this country, Lucy Barton. I did not fly across the county to tell me that we’re trash. They were good decent people. They came ashore at Provincetown, Massachusetts, and they were fishermen and they were settlers. We settled this country…”

Lucy even shares her chats with her writing tutor as she is composing this. Maybe my arguement is really with the tutor.

What this is not really, despite its lavish (un)critical praise, is a novel, rather it is a portrait in which no knife is unsheathed, no pistol cocked, just a haughty chin raised to the world. Equally you could say it is a photograph of a long moment in time, of an era with sub themes like Aids and American class brushed in for a little shading.

How much stronger this would have been if all this had just just been a swirl of background to an interlaced story/plot. At present it does not have much to say for itself that Mabel down the pub can manage for a pint (price of) of stout.

My biography shelf favours people who have led interesting, often flamboyant lives not little girls raised in a garage who get lucky (unexplained) and make some money and feel sorry for themselves.







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The vanishing futurist by Charlotte Hobson (Faber)


“In May 1914, much against the advice of my parents, I took up the post of governess to the Robelev family of No 7 Gagarinsky Lane, Moscow”

THERE is an endearing description on page two of this provocative, colourful entertaining, even visionary novel.

“Miss Clegg was born and bred in Truro, a solid leathery woman as dependably stuffed with good Chapel values as a pasty is with potato…” Part of the charm here are the people…

I picked up my copy at the RA exhibition of Soviet futurism which might be a cute place to read this, surrounded by powerful propaganda for a new utopia. There is an essay at the back, entitled Alchemy of Art, which you could equally mug up on before.

Gerty is an English governess to an old family as revolution sweeps the streets of Moscow. When the family leaves, a new idealistic commune forms around her and two older ladies who have decided to stay in the house. The scientist Slavkin is trying to build a madcap contraption that will communize people in 20 minutes. Gerty’s hopes of love are met with a response that sex is now too bourgeois.

“We the comrades declare war on the private – from now on there shall be no I, only we.” They move into shared rooms and shared baths.

It is enough to put you off being young and idealist although the picture Hobson paints is not too different to squats and hippy communes of the ‘60 and ‘70s with the overbearing difference that they do not have any money. There is a sub text, almost an exchange of visions, a swapping of zeal for pragmatic survival, burning down the wooden windows to make a fire in the old mansion, so hungry they drink carrot tea. As Gerty’s husband tells her later: “Truth is the surgeon. It sets the bones. Otherwise time will heal them crooked”. You know the story, but probably not from this perspective.


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