1 June, 2009Issue 9.6Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews

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The real reason why Ruth Padel resigned the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry: she can’t spell. The Evening Standard reprints the e-mail at the centre of the Padel scandal and reveals that the poet’s orthography, as she might write, is “interestigfn” [sic!].

Speculation now turns to the race to take her place. Derek Walcott will not stand again. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who garnered 129 votes in the most recent race for the post, could stand again but might not: the Indian poet says he “will cross that bridge when Oxford invites fresh nominations“. The Daily Telegraph‘s Tom Payne nominates Michael Horovitz and Anne Carson. The Times adds Michael Schmidt, Michael Longley, Alice Oswald, and Robert Bringhurst to the list. Seamus Heaney suggests that Oxford look beyond the British Isles… and beyond the English-speaking world: he mentions Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Benjamin Zephaniah’s name has been mentioned as well, but the rabble-rousing Rastafarian (who famously said “up yours” to the Order of the British Empire) maintains that people who care about poetry don’t care about the Oxford professorship. Anyhow, he expressed his views on high honours eight years ago when he published the poem “Bought and Sold“:

Smart big awards and prize money

Is killing off black poetry.

Before There Was Susan Boyle… There Was John Clare… Benjamin Zephaniah is not the only one who warns against “smart big awards and prize money”. After London booksellers plucked peasant poet John Clare out of obscurity and transformed him into a national “curiosity”, the Northamptonshire farmer found that the fame was too much for him to handle. He spent the last 23 years of his life in a lunatic asylum. In the Wall Street Journal, essayist William Amelia tells the tale of Clare’s rise and fall. Meanwhile, novelist Adam Foulds tells the tale of Clare’s 1841 asylum escape. The Independent says that Foulds evokes “the thrill, stink and dirt of sensual Victoriana“.

Sex, the Victorians, and the Puritans… Queen Victoria was not as “stinky” or “dirty” as some of her predecessors, but she ranks high among monarchs for her sensuality. A new book by Gillian Gill (reviewed in the Wall Street Journal) notes that the “warm Coburg and Hanoverian blood of her veins” manifested itself in bed: “Albert needed to satisfy her physically“… Meanwhile, a new book by American historian Edmund Morgan (reviewed in this week’s Washington Post) reveals that the Puritans weren’t as prudish as we had imagined. One church in Massachusetts expelled a male congregant because “he denyed Coniugall fellowship vnto his wife for the space of 2 years“.

Death to Potatoes. Long Live Corn. Perhaps the Massachusetts male congregant hadn’t eaten enough potatoes: writer John Reader reveals that the spuds were briefly believed to be aphrodisiacs. (The Post and the New York Times both review his History of the Propitious Escluent this week.) Brits already know the secrets of the Solanum tuberosum: they rank tenth in the world in per-capita potato consumption (behind several ex-Soviet states, Poland, and Rwanda, yet ahead of Ireland). But there was a time when potatoes were under a cloud of suspicion: in 17th-century Burgundy, they were thought to lead to leprosy… Meanwhile, in Iran, potatoes may lead one candidate to victory in the upcoming presidential elections: Holocaust-denying incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is using them to buy votes. His opponents are spurning the spuds and chanting “death to potatoes” in the streets… Meanwhile, the San Francisco Public Library declares death to plastic: the city’s libraries are switching to membership cards made out of corn.

Of course, no history of the potato would be complete without mention of its alcoholic incarnation (though corn toppled the tuber as the vodka ingredient of choice in the late 19th century). The Times takes a look at Britain’s only home-grown potato vodka and finds that potatoes are actually an inefficient ingredient for hard liquor-makers: former Tyrells tycoon William Chase, who cut a ¬£40 million deal for his crisp company last year, says that it takes 250 potatoes to make each of his vodka bottles. Meanwhile, no history of vodka would be complete without mention of Pyotr Smirnov, the son of serfs and the subject of a new biography by Linda Himelstein, reviewed in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle (and recently in the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek as well). Smirnov’s sales surged in late 19th-century Russia despite Tolstoy’s campaign to label every bottle with a skull and crossbones and a warning that read “Poison”. (Chekhov chastised Smirnov for fueling alcoholism as well.) Smirnov’s son Vladimir fled Russia after the revolution, replaced the final v in his surname with two f’s, and built the bestselling brand of vodka in the world. (Today, Smirnoff is the bestselling spirit of any kind in the UK and US.) James Bond certainly helped the cause: Reuters reports that the Cold War spy sips Smirnoff in 21 of his 22 films. After the Cold War’s end, Pyotr Smirnov’s descendants returned to Moscow, where they now brew a concoction using their forebear’s original recipe.

Moscow, 1937… and 1956. The Times Literary Supplement supplies a far more sobering story of Moscow and the “bacchanal of self-destruction” that Stalin wrought. A review of German historian Karl Schlögel’s Terror und Traum documents the details of Stalin’s purges. The celebration of the opening of the Moscow-Volga Canal coincided with the execution of the men who built it. Meanwhile, novelist Tom Rob Smith travels to Moscow in 1956, the year that Nikita Khrushchev delivered his remarks renouncing Stalin’s legacy. The Independent declares that Smith’s Secret Speech is “insanely exciting“; the Observer is less impressed. Oxford political scientist Archie Brown’s Rise and Fall of Communism (reviewed in the Telegraph and the Times) notes that the Chinese Communist Party recently thought about “removing the word ‘Communist’ [from its name] because it did not go down well with the rest of the world“. Meanwhile, Jacob Heilbrunn, author of a history of American neoconservatism, argues that the US Republican Party “needs its own ‘secret speech’ repudiating the Cheney era“. Cheney, for his part, is repudiating nothing—and he is looking to sell his memoirs for $2 million.

“Four Score and Seven Years Ago”… Abraham Lincoln never lived to write his memoirs, but he was a publishing marketing genius: when asked to write an endorsement for another writer’s book, he scrawled: “For the sort of people who like this book, it is the sort of book those people will like.” The 30th of May marked an important date in the world of Lincolniana: the 87th anniversary of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial (that’s four score and seven). The Times Literary Supplement marks the occasion with a review of four new Lincoln books (see ORB‘s special Lincoln edition from February). The US National Archives mark the occasion by unveiling a long-lost letter that Lincoln wrote five days before the Gettysburg Address. And the Kellogg Company, maker of Cheez-It, marks the occasion with a 640-pound cheddar sculpture of the Lincoln Memorial. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Journal Star celebrates another occasion—National Hamburger Day—by tracing the hamburger’s history from Genghis Khan to the present. At 8,266 pounds, the world’s largest hamburger would tower over Cheez-It’s construction.

Sonia Sotomayor’s Reading List. As the New York Times and Washington Post both note, Obama’s nominee for the US Supreme Court is a fan of Nancy Drew novels; the White House says that a nine-year-old Sonia “turned to books for solace” after her father’s death and found it in detective fiction. If confirmed, Sotomayor will find a fellow Drew devotee on the bench: Ruth Bader Ginsburg attributes her own feminism to “growing up on Nancy Drew”. And in her memoirs, the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, writes about her love of Drew as well. Meanwhile, the Providence Journal‘s nationally syndicated columnist Froma Harrop lambastes the White House for making mention of Sotomayor’s detective-reading habits: “President Obama treats her as a daughter, not a colleague… [W]ould anyone note that the chief justice [John Roberts] enjoyed ‘Winnie the Pooh’ as a boy, which he probably did?” (Answer: No, but he did disclose to the Senate that his favourite movies were North By Northwest and Dr. Zhivago, which caused consternation among conservatives who worried that the Bruce Pasternak novel was “a little commie“.) It’s not clear what Sotomayor has on her bookshelf or in her DVD player now, but fellow liberals might suggest two new books that sketch a liberal alternative to Antonin Scalia’s originalism. As the Wall Street Journal notes, there is “a desire for…a new ‘ism'” on the left, but liberals are having trouble finding a name for their philosophy. “Redemptive constitutionalism” and “democratic constitutionalism” are candidates. Stanford Law School professor Pamela Karlan suggested “constitutional faith” but discarded it because it sounded “too much like we were praying to the constitution”.

Speaking of New Names… The residents of Butt Hole Road near Doncaster have spent ¬£300 to change their street name to Archers Way. The episode illustrates the power of the pen: the residents acted after their street was mocked in a book: Rude Britain. Magpie Lane off High Street here in Oxford also warrants a mention in the book because, well, its name wasn’t always “magpie”.