16 March, 2009Issue 8.8Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews

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University Challenge (Primary School Edition)… Young contestants with remarkable memories in high-pressure, high-stakes, televised tournaments? In the footsteps of Gail Trimble, Slumdog Millionaire and Nupur Lala (of Spellbound fame) comes an even younger, even cuter cast of competitors (ranging in age from seven to eleven), and they’re coming to a theatre near you. The Sheldonian Theatre, that is. The Sunday Times previews “Off the Heart”, the competitive poetry recital scheduled for the last day of this year’s Oxford Literary Festival (5 April 2009). The Times and the BBC sponsored contests in 1,500 schools across the UK and have winnowed the field down to a dozen declaimers. A ten-year-old boy from Iran who spent two years inside a refugee camp will recite TS Eliot’s “Macavity: The Mystery Cat.” Evidently, criminal animals are all the rage. The most oft-recited poem was Roald Dahl’s “The Pig“, which tells the story of a swine who eats a hog farmer for lunch.

Hog Farmers Are Being Eaten Alive… not by their pigs, but by competitive pressures. Chef Jamie Oliver says that UK pork farmers are an endangered species. So it’s a surprise to see that hog farmers are well-represented on the books pages of British newspapers this weekend. The Guardian reviews Solace of the Road, the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who lifts a ride from a hog farmer and heads westward along the A40. It is the second posthumous publication by Siobhan Dowd, a writer of young-adult fiction who died of cancer in 2007.

Posthumous Literature is the Life of the Book World… so far in 2009. Last week, we reported that the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel was generating controversy in critics’ circles. This week, Roberto Bola√±o’s posthumously published novel 2666 wins the (US) National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. (The best biography award goes to Patrick French for The World Is What It Was: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul—which the Oxonian Review’s Jonathan Gharraie assessed last spring.)

Roberto Bola√±o once said that the word “posthumous” sounded like a Roman gladiator. With the late Heath Ledger winning an Oscar for Dark Night, and with works by Nabokov and Kerouac on the way, it’s a word we’re hearing often. Indeed, too often for footballer Eddie Turnbull, who won a posthumous award from a church in Leith, Scotland earlier this year. Turnbull is alive—and upset that he was not invited to the ceremony: “I would have been there but, because I was dead, obviously no one told me about it.”

An Irish Wake… Until 1962, if a dead body was carried through the door of a pub in Ireland, the proprietor was legally required to store it in his cellar alongside his beer kegs until the coroner could hold an inquest. Today, pub owners in Ireland are pleased to see anybody coming through their doors—even if the body has no pulse. This week, the New York Times raises its glass to writer Bill Barich and his new book A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub. As the Times notes, the nation of Nigeria now drinks more stout than Ireland (though as the Times fails to note, Nigeria also has thirty-three times as many people. While the “Celtic Tiger” economy roared ahead, the Irish retreated into their homes: they went from drinking 70 percent of their alcohol in pubs at the beginning of the decade to 47 percent in 2007. Barich chalks up the change to—among other factors—tougher drunk-driving laws…Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, County Cork native William Birdthistle proposes that the pub in Ireland may not be as doomed as these statistics suggest. Ending his review on a note as bittersweet as a pint of Murphy’s, Birdthistle writes: “With the wings of Ireland’s economy so badly singed, one wonders whether the treasured pub will return with poverty as it fled with wealth….”

One Irish-style pub that will not survive is Oxford’s own Rosie O’Grady’s on Park End Street. The Oxford Mail reports this week that the pub’s new owner, a native of County Down, is “completely gutting it” and “turning it back into a traditional English pub format”. He tells the Mail: “the days of Irish bars have passed”.

The Best Bar Near Naples is at the rail station in Pompeii, says Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, who in this week’s Guardian takes us on a tour of the city where she spent a decade researching her new book. Harvard University Press has “sexed up” the title for American audiences: it was called Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town when it appeared in the UK last year; now it’s The Fires of Vesuvius. This week, the New York Times hails it as “engrossingly mischievous“. Beard meanders through the lurid, louche life of the Latins (“There seem to be phalluses everywhere”). There seem to be pubs everywhere too: by one estimate, Pompeii was home to 158 bars—in a city with a total population of 12,000 to 15,000.

A Posthumous Pub Crawl…Speaking of hog farms, and posthumous publications, and perishing pubs, the Times republishes George Orwell’s 1946 essay on the “ten qualities that the perfect pub should have“. Elsewhere, the Times worries that at the current rate of closure, the last pub in Britain will close in 2037.

“Some People Are More Equal than Others”… We would be thinner, healthier, and happier if incomes were distributed more equally. That’s the (paraphrased) argument of Snowball in Orwell’s Animal Farm—and of epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson (University of Nottingham) and Kate Pickett (University of York). In a new book, The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that the social ills of the UK and US can largely be attributed to income inequality. Consistent with the egalitarian ethos of their argument, Wilkinson and Pickett have posted their evidence for all to see—for free—on their website, EqualityTrust.org.uk. The Guardian and the New Statesman (unsurprisingly) are convinced; the Economist (unsurprisingly) is not. Admittedly, the charts and graphs are compelling—although the argument brings to mind a popular cartoon about correlation and causation. Is it possible that in countries where mental illness and drug abuse are endemic, efforts to improve the lives of the lower classes are less likely to succeed? France, for example, has higher tax rates than any of the Scandinavian nations, but it also has higher inequality—and more social problems. Wilkinson and Pickett suggest that inequality is a cause of social ills, but could it instead be a consequence?

A Period Is Not Just a Punctuation Mark… In April 2006, the book world went wild after it was revealed that a second-year student at Harvard had published a novel that plagiarised passages from bestselling chick-lit writer Megan McCafferty. Now, a soon-to-be first-year at Yale is reprinting McCafferty’s writing word-for-word! The twist: she has McCafferty’s permission. McCafferty is one of 92 female writers who have shared stories of their first menstrual experiences in My Little Red Book, an anthology edited by 18 year-old Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Nalebuff says she “wanted to evoke Mao’s Little Red Book, the manifesto distributed to all Chinese citizens during the Cultural Revolution”. We’re not so sure about the allusion: menstruation may be traumatic, but the Cultural Revolution (20 million dead) was rather worse. Still, the Chicago Tribune calls it “charming“, and the New York Times loves it so much that it reviews the book twice. The first review is more fawning (Abigail Zuger predicts that the book will “sell briskly for centuries to come“) but the second review has a better title: “There Will Be Blood“.