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Leonard Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership
Leonard Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership
by Peter Alexander
Edition: Hardcover

2.0 out of 5 stars Eccentric. . ., 23 May 2014
This is a very odd book! I have come across it after twenty-odd years, and I'm sure it must have seemed outdated even as it appeared. Written by a South African, Cambridge-educated Professor in Australia, it clearly required a great deal of first-hand research which one assumes was motivated by at least interest in, and probably close involvement in, his subjects, but Alexander's chief concern seems to be to produce a hatchet job on Virginia Woolf in particular. He starts from the twin briefs of arguing that there was no such thing as Bloomsbury (rather shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, I would have thought), and demonstrating that Leonard and Virginia Woolf influenced each other's writing. (If they had lived together for thirty years and had *not* influenced each other's writing, that might have been worth a look. . .) Alexander is also very keen to argue that apart from perhaps two books, Virginia Woolf was a very mediocre writer. Good luck with that one. I wonder what she'd done to annoy him? Well, one answer to that is probably that she eluded him, that he failed to understand her at every turn, and he decided to take it out on her. At no stage does he pick up her idiom, or recognise her admittedly idiosyncratic humour. It really is as if he's operating in a language foreign to him. And when faced with the choice of interpreting her writings or actions or personality in one of two ways -- let's call them the right one and the wrong one -- he unerringly and determinedly plumps for the wrong one, the one not remotely backed up by the material. Seriously, if you're a Bloomsbury completist, by all means give this a read, but otherwise don't bother. I would stick to the biography by Hermione Lee, and the more recent treatment by Julia Briggs: An Inner Life, which concentrates on the works as reflected in the life, and vice versa. There are other books about the Woolf marriage, but there seems little to be said about it that Hermione Lee hasn't already given us.


D.H. Lawrence: A Biography
D.H. Lawrence: A Biography
Price: 8.94

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It's Lawrence, Jim, but not as we know him. . ., 3 Jan 2014
Imagine putting together a well-resourced team of researchers on Lawrence's life, and then giving the job of actually writing the biography to one of the more feverish feature-writers on the Sun or the Daily Mail -- and this is the book you end up with. OK, it's a rollicking good read -- though constantly irritating if you know anything about Lawrence to start with -- but this is essentially a tabloid treatment of a major writer and thinker still scandalously underrated, and a very special, valuable human being, a one-off in the best sense. It's not that all the alleged facts are wrong, though many are certainly questionable, rather that they are spun, and interpreted how it suits the author, which is to say in the most sensational way he can find, often laying great stress on nth-hand tittle-tattle from sources who may never have been reliable or unbiased. In some ways all biographies do this, otherwise they're just chronologies, but it's a matter of balance and reasonableness in marshalling evidence and suggesting conclusions. As a start, and as just one example of the book's atmosphere, look at the author's captions to the many photographs: I don't think we need to be told what we're looking at. Here's a perfectly ordinary good-natured studio portrait of a half-smiling Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, but in Meyers' view, we learn that "Katherine's gaunt expression (it isn't in the slightest) and deep-set eyes (no again, they aren't) reveal the illness that killed her in 1923". (Ah, that's why he said those things: she died of TB, so she must look like it, but unfortunately for Meyers, she doesn't: though he'll say it anyway.) And then "Murry seems nervous and concerned". (Not remotely -- he's smiling for the camera.) You find yourself asking "Do I trust this biographer?", and in this case and many other cases the answer is probably No, especially as he found himself overshadowed, almost as soon as the first edition of his book appeared in the early 1990s, by the truly epic and admirable three-volume Cambridge biography by John Worthen, Mark Kinkead-Weekes, and David Ellis. Those are the books anyone wanting to really understand Lawrence and get a real-feeling sense of the man should turn to, expensive though they may be.


Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959
Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959
by David Kynaston
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Should be compulsory reading for everyone!, 6 Sep 2013
As a musician nursing an injured hand, I have spent most of the summer immersed in the getting-on-for 2000 pages of Kynaston's growing masterpiece. I thought at the age of 65 it was time I got a real grip on the history of my lifetime, and this has been a pleasure and a treat, and often a deeply moving experience. There is no point going into much detail, as the press reviews above tell you eloquently all you need to know, but if this little "review" influences one hesitant person to read the book(s), I shall not have lived in vain. As ever, some of the other reviews leave one rather bemused! Someone complains that there's "too much about housing". Well, sorry, but that's what everyone was preoccupied with for most of the 1950s. Also the moan that Modernity Britain is only "half a volume" and therefore poor value -- well, really! Most of us are holding our breath waiting for any new material to appear. I don't know what Kynaston's own political views are, and I've deliberately refrained from finding out: he himself is at great pains to let his material tell the story without imposing himself on the narrative in any real way, though some of his asides are pithily suggestive. He definitely doesn't think much of Mary Whitehouse, and I suspect he is lining Thatcher up for a blasting in later volumes. At least I hope so. . . Do I actually *like* my fellow-countrypersons as they appear in these books? I'm not sure. I think so: most people are seen just trying to get along and live quiet decent lives, with all sorts of mayhem going on around them. Class is everywhere, the whole country is steeped in it: often its manifestations coalesce in one "case-study", e.g. the fight between BBC and ITV for the soul of the nation. Thoughtful vs brainless, high-minded vs brashly materialist, etc. What sort of people are we? It just keeps rumbling on, and of course it's all unfinished business. Kynaston does draw attention to the danger of "presentism", judging social mores and people of the past by the standards of today, and of course he's right, but it's very hard not to be censorious when reading about some pretty appalling injustices, out of which this country emerges not looking very good. One teeny tiny minuscule irritation was that I noticed the author three times use the word "coruscating" in a way that told me he didn't know what it meant and hadn't looked it up! But that's just a gnat-bite -- this is great work.


Wagner
Wagner
by Michael Tanner
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.00

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars If this is the best-ever book on Wagner. . ., 17 May 2013
This review is from: Wagner (Paperback)
"A quiet, subtle, modest masterpiece", another reviewer writes. Hmmm. . . I first contributed to this thread two or three years ago when I was about to buy the book, and I've just returned to it a second time, to see whether my first reactions stood up. Firstly, and to get this out of the way, Giles Penfold is right to say that Tanner's prose is appalling. Don't they have editors at Harper Collins? I would have sent it back and said "Probably very interesting: have another go at making it comprehensible, and I may be able to tell". Now, I hate the cult of the three word sentence -- Hemingway has a lot ot answer for -- and I'm prefectly at home with long unfolding sentences a la Walter Pater and also with academic discourse, but what I do not expect to be required to do is hunt round for a main verb, or listen to faint grinding noises as Tanner slowly gets round to another rhetorical question or condescending put-down. For in many ways this book is less about Wagner than about the author demonstrating his superiority to all other commentators, mostly by suggesting either that they haven't done their homework, or are in his word "inane", or that they are prejudiced. And it looks to me as though there's a lot of gratuitous Left-bashing going on here. Recommending quotes are shown in the blurb from such reactionary figures as Simon Heffer and Anthony O'Hear, and one always smells a rodent when writers quote approvingly from the preposterous Roger Scruton. There is a great deal of looking down the Tanner nose at any arguments he doesn't happen to accept, e.g. "That is the level of sophistication at which these arguments operate", and "A few recent examples, to show the level to which one has to descend if one is not to be felt to be just condescending". This is snotty stuff. And far from being "quiet", and "subtle", it's a pretty shrill polemic, whose chief method is to refute any criticism of Wagner as man or artist. But however much Tanner may wish otherwise, there *is* a problem with Wagner, which won't go away. Even leaving aside the anti-Semitic stuff, which comes freighted with a lot of particular historical and social context, it simply is not possible to represent Wagner as Jesus reincarnated, or to argue that his works, which may well be sublime works of art, are progressive, enlightened and humanitarian, while trying to deny that they were created by a man whom another critic succinctly describes as "hypocrite, bigot, opportunist, adulterer". (Tanner baulks at the last: Wagner was apparently only an occasional adulterer.) The defence sometimes touches on the ridiculous: Tanner asks us to remember, and make allowances for the fact, that many of Wagner's works were created when the ludicrously-extravagant (with other people's money) composer was living in poverty! This breathtaking piece of cheek reminds me of the young man hauled up in Court for murdering his parents, and asking for clemency on the grounds of being an orphan. Well, I suppose this is all good knockabout stuff, but while recognising that there is a disjunct between the art and (at least) the perception of the man, Tanner comes nowhere near teasing out just why this is such a problem when we would all like to be able to experience the work wholeheartedly, instead of at best grudgingly and fingers firmly crossed behind the back. He seems to think it's a plot by antisemitism-obsessed leftwingers and intellectual pygmies to besmirch his hero, arguing that no other artist is subjected to such unrealistic expectations of personal perfection. Well, hello. . . could it be because no other artist has ever made such grandiose and bombastic gestures and claims for himself and his art, or acted out megalomania so brazenly? I should in fairness close by saying that on its own terms, Tanner's book is rigorous and its arguments well-shaped, which is not however to say I found them very convincing, though there is certainly plenty of food (albeit often indigestible) for thought. But my overall feeling is that Tanner's worship of Wagner blinds him to the presence in this particular room of several elephants. I've read it closely twice, and I feel I've given it a fair shake: I won't be reading it again.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 29, 2013 7:16 PM GMT


Symphony 5 / Festive Overture
Symphony 5 / Festive Overture
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: 17.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not well-known in Europe, but among the very best, 5 July 2012
About to conduct a student orchestra in this great piece, I spent a lot of time and money seeking out the clearest and "best" recording to help the players. This recording from 1993 doesn't seem to have been well (if at all) publicised in Britain and Europe, and it was new to me, but it's tremendous. Some might find it a bit slow and ponderous, but I like that! You can hear every note on every instrument, but it's not just a technical triumph -- Muti really carries you along and helps you follow the musical argument every second of the way. Do grab it if you can -- you won't regret it.


Brahms - Symphony No. 2
Brahms - Symphony No. 2
Price: 14.17

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revelation. . ., 20 Jun 2012
This review is from: Brahms - Symphony No. 2 (Audio CD)
I'm surprised to see that no one in the UK has so far commented on this disc, so I will. I first came across it by a happy accident when I was fiddling with internet radio on my Squeezebox Touch, and from a Ukrainian station came a very startling sound. I knew what it was, but had never heard it anything like that, and exclaimed "Who on earth is THAT?". I had to wait till the end to find out, worrying all the time that I wouldn't understand the announcement, but the experience was a revelation in both senses. I can only echo what others have said about this and the other three symphonies: one gets slightly tired of the arguments about period practice, and when the results are as startling as this, they seem quite irrelevant. Perhaps because Brahms himself was large and rotund, redolent of cigars and strong coffee, we expect and accept peformances of his symphonies that are similarly portly and dense. But when all the excess is stripped off, as Jeggy does with this symphony, it's revealed in all its youthful vigour and beauty, and you can hear absolutely everything, a tribute not only to the ORR but to the recording engineers. It's no exaggeration to say that if I was forced to choose between this recording and the splendid recent one by the Berlin Phil under Rattle, I would take this one. But I'm greedy, and will have both, thanks.


SanDisk Sansa Fuze+ 8GB MP3 with FM Radio - White
SanDisk Sansa Fuze+ 8GB MP3 with FM Radio - White

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What's the problem?!, 12 Jun 2012
I've had a Fuze+ for a month now, and I really can't identify with most of the complaints on here! Leaving aside "normal" difficulties with units which simply didn't work and had to be replaced, this seems to me to be a lovely little machine, and most reported problems are to do with the touch-pad. This works like a dream -- once you get used to it. I'm no more than averagely dextrous, but it took me only 10-15 minutes to feel completely at home. Don't be impatient! Curb your impetuosity! Charge it for the full three hours. Go and do something else. Take a bit of time to read the manual properly (it's better than most -- download it if it's not in the pack) and it'll be fine. As usual, don't rely on the provided headpieces if you care at all about sound quality, but hook up a decent pair (come on, they start at 20) and the musical sound is quite startling. Even the much moaned-about file system looks entirely transparent to me. I really recommend this little piece of kit. Unless you're a hard-core Steve Jobs worshipper, I can't see any way in which this is inferior to an iPod.


Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 2, Serenade to Music
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 2, Serenade to Music
Price: 14.04

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Straight in at Number One, as they used to say. . ., 19 Mar 2012
Well, I didn't see this one coming! Seaman's long tenure with the Rochester Philharmonic, now coming to an end, has given us this late bloom, and it's a really fabulous account of the London. Not the least recommendation is the SACD recording quality, startling even to a hardened listener like me. Seaman's painstaking attention to every detail of the score is matched by the engineering: I'm struggling to think of any other version on record (and I think I've got them all) where literally everything is clearly audible, from the opening basses -- usually just a dull rumble, but here you can hear bows on rosin! -- to the dying away of the Epilogue. However, the conductor has clearly also spent a huge amount of time studying the score and deciding how each and every phrase should be rendered, and his reading often deviates quite sharply from what we are used to. That is not a criticism -- everything convinced me, especially the rhythms of unprecedented perkiness in the scherzo, and in the shimmering string beats in the second movement, the emotional heart of the symphony, which often blend (pleasingly, it must be said) into one legato line, but are here very deftly given as separate quiet pulses. But there are telling details like this all the way through. Forgive the schoolboyish enthusiasm, but I feel this is the version of the London I have been waiting for, and I really recommend it to new listeners and old Vaughan Williams lags alike. I wouldn't be without the Hickox recording of the original version on Chandos, but this one is a cracker.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 26, 2012 1:57 PM BST


Anastasia: The Life of Anna Anderson
Anastasia: The Life of Anna Anderson
by Peter Kurth
Edition: Paperback

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Even the author is embarrassed. . ., 1 Jan 2012
I've had this book (along with a worryingly large number of others on the same subject) since it first appeared, and the only reason I'm posting a review of it now is my bemusement at most -- if not all -- of the other reviews. I seem to have stumbled into a world of flat-Earthers. I hope HIRAM will forgive me if I single him out, but he has clearly put so much time and effort into this over a period of year that he deserves at least the courtesy of reply. His "Recent scientific evidence purports to prove the Grand Duchess Anastasia was murdered and her sad life ended in 1918. However, the evidence is all "putative". For me, this evidence is a contrived, put-up job. This book is convincing on that score, even as old as it is. The DNA evidence is a put-up job." sums up the feeling of many, I know, but it's nonsense. We all like a mystery, but a vacuum tends to suck all sorts of old rubbish into it, and this is what has happened in the Anderson case. Add to this the sheer horribleness of the fate of the Romanovs, and the fact that no one famous can simply die -- there has to have been some skullduggery going on -- and you have the perfect recipe for almost a century of confusion, obfuscation, wishful thinking and frissons of spine-tingling. I particularly like HIRAM's dismissal of all the damning evidence as "putative" -- whatever it means! Well, I know what the dictionary says it means, but what HIRAM is saying is that he doesn't like it, so he will assert that it's merely theoretical. He seems vaguely cross with Kurth for now distancing himself from this book, but at least Kurth has had the good sense to realise that he spent a generation backing the wrong horse, and that any further exposure would rob him of any remaining credibility. I have a sharp memory of watching on tv the scene where Marina Botkin and her husband, in the company of Kurth, receive the DNA evidence proving that Anna Anderson was no more Anastasia than I am. One felt more sorry than embarrassed for the Schweitzers, who had spent a lifetime genuinely believing in Anderson, but poor old Kurth, who must surely have had a good idea what was coming, looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as well he might. And there it should have ended, but conspiracy theories are always there to ensnare the credulous. I should say that I never thought for one moment that Anderson was Anastasia, if only for the mudane reason that she didn't look anything like her! Anyone who has ever done any genealogical research on their own family tree will know that some people can spot family resemblances on photographs immediately, while others are hopeless. I'm not surprised that a few people thought Fraulein Unbekannt could be Anastasia (or Tatiana), so desperate were they to believe the preposterous, for either sentimental or sometimes pecuniary reasons. But then we are treated to the ludicrous contention that TB or other illnesses can distort facial features, which may not be completely untrue, but there are limits: presumably if I got ill enough, I could be passed off as Princess Diana. HIRAM, while continuing to praise Kurth's book to the skies, chides him for his "bad habit of injecting a spot of pure speculation amidst all the historical fact". Well, quite, and that's why I'm only giving it two stars, for making all our lives more difficult! In a celebrated case like this one, historians have to be absolutely scrupulous in separating fact from speculation, and there has been far too much (understandably) romantically-motivated speculation, the problem being that if you can't tell what is fact and what is surmise, and in this and the other standard books you very often can't, myths are perpetuated and added to, and we end up with the current situation of people preferring to go on believing twaddle in the face of unwelcome fact. No one (as far as I know) is "shouting about the DNA" -- you don't have to. It's there. Get over it. Kurth has.


Thomas Hardy: A Biography
Thomas Hardy: A Biography
by Martin Seymour-Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 22.33

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Persevere, it's the best biography!, 6 Dec 2011
I was surprised, and rather disappointed, to find only one review for the late Martin Seymour-Smith's generous (in every sense) biography of Hardy. I've had it since it was published, and I consider it's the best biography, and believe me I've read 'em all! The last reviewer is not exactly wrong to point to the detail with which Seymour-Smith examines aspects of Hardy which might not in themselves seem important, or to complain about the sheer length of the book. But you have to know the history of Hardy biography, which has perpetuated so many myths, inaccuracies, misjudgements and just plain tripe about poor old Hardy, that it needed someone as dogged and learned and sensible as Seymour-Smith to sort out fact from fiction from speculation, and that was never going to be a quick job. He does, it is true, spend a great deal of time pointing out where other biographers got it wrong, and why. Gittings and Millgate, usually reckoned the standard biographies, take an essentially snobbish view of Hardy, both socially and intellectually, marvelling that a peasant such as Hardy could have somehow by a fluke come up with such great work. Neither is willing to cut Hardy any slack as a human being either, repeating the usual stuff about his being a curmudgeonly nay-sayer. (As he probably was when dealing with pains, but completely different in congenial company.) If this book has a fault it is in being if anything *too* generous to Hardy, though I'm willing to forgive that, as it balances things. Most biographers have taken such a dim view of the great man, you wonder why they bothered to labour over books about someone they clearly had litle time for. (And coming up to date, Claire Tomalin's much-lauded biography contributes almost nothing that Seymour-Smith hasn't already covered and in a far wittier style. The other recent survey by Ralph Pite is worthy and interesting, but again doesn't have the weight of understanding and close reading that Seymour-Smith brings to his subject.) What Seymour-Smith doesn't refer to in so many words, but his close analyses make clear, is the sheer dimness of most Hardy biography, reading things literally when it suits, and guessing the rest. Of course, there is a reason for this, and that is Hardy's attempt to create his own authorised biography in the form of the ghost-written volumes under his gloomy second-wife's name. One can see why he wanted to do it, wishing to forestall inaccurate biography and get his retaliation in fisrt, but this was probably not a good idea, and asking for trouble, as it left out much that would have been of interest, and as we all know all sorts of rubbish gets sucked in to fill a vacuum. It also left Hardy studies with the uneasy feeling that there must have been something, or somethings, he wanted to hide. No smoke without fire, etc. This seems not to have been the case at all, but again it took a painstaking examination of all the evidence, and a sympathetic, psychologically-literate, culturally-encyclopaedic, and large-minded biographer to do Hardy justice, and this is just what we have in Seymour-Smith's book. For the sort of money it's available for now on Amazon, it's an absolute steal. You don't have to read it all in one session, but you may find you want to!


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