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The Spoils of Poynton (Classics)
The Spoils of Poynton (Classics)
by Henry James
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.71

5.0 out of 5 stars A neglected masterpiece that ushered in James’s mature style, 27 Mar 2014
As David Lodge points out in his fine introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Henry James’s short novel, critics have tended to be – pointlessly – divided in their estimation of the novel’s heroine, the curiously named Fleda Vetch. Some see her as honourable, sensitive, moral and high-minded; others, a neurotic, sexually-repressed mess. Whatever the merits of either position, neither does full justice to the intricacies of James’s story and the manner in which he brings the full-flowering of his stylistic talents to bear on the telling of it. As in almost all of James’s later novels, his highly sensitive and sensitised characters are all grappling with the ‘black-boxness’ that is Other People. How to interpret another's thoughts and words, actions and behaviours when none of these on their own, or all put together, can hope to give an accurate picture of that person? And because of this fundamental indeterminacy in our inter-personal relationships, James constructs narratives that can’t be anything but ambiguous.

Ambiguity is the necessary product of any genuinely creative process - as Nabokov would have gleefully reminded us, there is no external Reality against which to measure the creative product. All is self-referential (which is a ‘boo-ya sucks’ to those critics seeking to ground their interpretation of The Spoils of Poynton in any Freudian interpretive framework). Are we then to infer that James was less interested in positioning Ambiguity as something fundamentally Real, than in positioning it as a necessary telos to his art? I suspect the way to collapse that opposition is to say that for James, as for Nabokov, the creative act is a Real as any Reality. For any responsible, mature, sensitive adult, ambiguity is the very texture through which we negotiate the Ethical. This brings us back to Fleda – young, penniless, alone; intelligent, ethically-grounded, empathetic. If her actions and her justifications sometimes shade into ambiguity, then that is surely justification for our admiration. It is Fleda who has to negotiate the tricky path between a mother’s limited appreciation of other people and the son’s innocent stupidity. All of which is played out on the battlefield of ‘things’ (the spoils of the title) but which stand in for a mother’s battle for possession of her son.

The Spoils of Poynton is an admirably condensed, dense, intricate, satisfying and ethical exploration of human inter-relationships. It’s a ‘quiet’ novel; almost business-like. Highly recommended.


The Confessions of Nat Turner (Vintage Classics)
The Confessions of Nat Turner (Vintage Classics)
by William Styron
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An emotionally complex novel that defies easy categorisation, 5 Aug 2013
We have hopefully arrived at a time when we can read this novel without the hysterical but necessary racial polemics that once drove such discourse in the USA. The need to combat racism is ever-present; but in the all-or-nothing atmosphere of the late 60s it's not surprising that this novel should have fallen victim to an increasingly polarised debate. That it did so is to be regretted, however.

A good novel should have the ability to offer new and intriguing insights to any succeeding generation of readers. On this basis alone, THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER delivers. Many readers have written passionately about Styron's complex and gripping account of Nat Turner's evolution into the instigator and leader of the only violent, armed revolt planned and enacted by slaves in the history of American Slavery. Styron offers compelling and uncomfortable reasons for why the revolt failed in even its most limited aims, outside of wholesale and bloody revenge. His eye is unremitting in its evaluation of the moral failings of everyone involved in the Special Institution. And his humanity, poetic sensibility and fairness shine through an emotionally heart (and gut)-wrenching story.

What struck a chord with this reader was the exchange between Gray and Turner in Part One, where Gray berates Turner for his messianic complex and his belief in God, citing such a psychological complex and system of belief as being the well-spring of the whole murderous endeavour. It's a recognisably `modern' attitude on the part of a character so virulently opposed to emancipation, racial equality and manumission. It resonates in our day and age when so many atrocities are committed in the name of this God or that God; and where political violence is clothed in the rhetoric of a Heavenly Mandate against this or that unclean group and/or Other. Styron places Nat's Divinely-ordained blood-bath at the very centre of his story, and ends with Nat Turner's belated realisation that he may have misunderstood God's message all along. Amen. And yet that in no way vitiates the fact that Slavery as a system brutalised millions and millions of men, women and children, black as well as white.

If we can reassess this novel and allow it to breathe on its own terms, we may re-discover a genuine American Classic.


Last Summer
Last Summer
Price: 7.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A traditionalist hiding within the outer skin of an iconoclast, 31 July 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Last Summer (Audio CD)
I came to LAST SUMMER after having bought PERSONAL RECORD. I became so entranced with Eleanor Friedberger's post-Fiery Furnace musical liberation that I just had to buy her first solo album. This musical liberation takes the paradoxical form of abandoning melodic hyperactivity as practiced by the Fiery Furnaces (chaotic, to my ears ...)in favour of a more restrained, traditional approach to song-craft. What I like about LAST SUMMER is all in evidence on the very first track, My Mistake. This starts with a simple but propulsive guitar and then kicks-in shortly with bass and drums. It's both highly emotive and rhythmic and leads one inexorably towards a feeling of elation. It's an old, old arranging trick; but she carries it off with ease and even allows the device to sound fresh because her voice is so uniquely engaging. And oh how I love her voice! In common with some of the greatest, most vital vocalists, Eleanor is technically not a crowd-pleasing singer. She's no Mariah Carey (thank god). Her range is limited. But her phrasing and subtle shadings are more than a compensation for lack of technical skill. She's from the Lou Reed School of Singing via Chrissie Hynde. Other stand-out track? For me it would have to be the off-kilter funk of Roosevelt Island. But picking out favourite tracks isn't the point. The album as a whole offers aural pleasures all along the ride. Buy it.


Personal Record
Personal Record
Price: 11.07

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly direct after a long-ish period of ADHD with her brother, 8 July 2013
This review is from: Personal Record (Audio CD)
This is a delight from start to finish. Eleanor sounds in strong voice, finding an emotive key often absent from recordings under the Fiery Furnaces moniker with brother Matt. The songs are direct, varied, and with instrumentation that harkens back to an imaginary musical time that might be considered mid-70s but is in fact, fully modern. I found the Fiery Furnaces, after their startling debut, annoying. Eleanor's voice and lyrics were always a draw but the hyperactivity of the melodies eventually found me abandoning them as a musical experience (it's usually at this point in an Amazon review when you're supposed to say, 'but don't get me wrong; I like difficult music too' as a way of defending a decision to set aside a band because they may be too intellectual for you). Eleanor exudes a type of feminine cool last practiced by Chrissie Hynde, but with less 'smoke' and more reserve. She's at least as interesting as Marnie Stern or St. Vincent. Have a listen.


This Is It And I Am It And You
This Is It And I Am It And You
Price: 18.11

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let Marnie rewire your neural networks, 14 Jun 2013
This album, Stern's second and featuring the Primal Energy drumming of Zach Hill, was my first encounter with Stern's music. The effect on first spin was a bit like brain surgery - you wondered if it was necessary, and the discomfort experienced suggested that a removable lesion might best be left in place. Opener 'Prime' is a musical call-to-arms. Come to her banner or prepare to do battle against her musical vision. I didn't have the strength for either. I put the CD back on the shelf for a year.

I couldn't get her out of my thoughts. I felt as though I'd been bested somehow. I'd caught a glimpse of a new musical language, wholly sui generis, which I'd failed to grasp and in my failure, had done her a dis-service.

A year went by. I tried the album again. And lo, it all began to make sense. It was as if just one listen a year previously had begun a subtle process that culminated in my brain being re-wired. I got it. I hadn't been bludgeoned into submission; I hadn't succumed to 'critical hype'. I'd simply become converted to a new way of experiencing melody, rhythm and emotion. Stern has the ability to make you want to tell everyone about her, even whilst you know and hope that many just won't get her. She's a rare vision and all the more welcome for appearing bathed in veiled radiance.

Marnie Stern, may you rock long and prosper.


The Chronicles of Marnia
The Chronicles of Marnia
Price: 8.13

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A 'softer' sound from Stern? Definitely., 3 Jun 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The punningly but charmingly titled Chronicles of Marnia represents something of a departure for Stern. Her previous two albums were underpinned by the frenetic, relentless, rhythmically inventive and propulsive drumming of Zach Hill.There's no doubt that he was instrumental (sorry) to the originality of Stern's compulsive drive to the outer-limits of bubble-gum math rock. At first listen, he's definitely missed on this album. But his absence opens up spaces which affords Stern the opportunity to elicit a type of light-and-shade texture to her music not really seen before. She shows a greater willingness to try out slightly different song structures without losing any of her signature sound. She's still recognisably the same Stern from MARNIE STERN and THIS IS IT AND I AM ... The curious thing is that, whereas before I'd have to spend time with each song to probe its structure and melodicism, now I have to spend an equal amount of time to probe each song to reconnect with those elements that are so indubitably Stern. Some might label CHRONICLES as a move to the center; and I have some sympathy with that. It's still a wonderful album; and there's nobody out there who sounds remotely like her (as far as I know ...)


Marnie Stern
Marnie Stern
Price: 10.60

5.0 out of 5 stars Fierce, ferocious, and angular but still manages to pack a melodic punch, 3 Jun 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Marnie Stern (Audio CD)
Marnie Stern's third album is a 'keeper'. I'm now a devoted fan, despite my initial reservation when I read that Stern's music is sometimes labelled Math Rock (could there be a more off-putting musical tag?). First song, FOR ASH, is emotionally powerful. It has a beautiful chorus which highlights all of Stern's gifts: her utterly original melodic sense, the multi-layering of her girlish-but-fully-committed voice, the stunning drumming and the guitar virtuosity. The rest of the album is more angular than FOR ASH, but like a lot of good things in music, absolutely repays repeated listenings. So much of Stern's success resides in how her songs reveal layer upon layer of surprises and pleasure. For me, she's the freshest, most original rocker to emerge since Polly Jean Harvey and Sleater-Kinney. May she rock for a goodly long time.


Don Quixote
Don Quixote
by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ribald, humane, entertaining. Oh ... and very, very readable!, 24 May 2013
This review is from: Don Quixote (Hardcover)
How to approach the novel voted as the most influential in the world by a comprehensive survey of international authors? With extreme caution, was my first thought. And my second. My third was, `life is too short'. And my fourth? `Life is too short. So read it!' It's only taken me (insert appropriate numbers of years without revealing age) to follow my own advice.

One can't avoid charges of elitism, literary snobbism, and a certain aestheticism when hefting such a freighted tome from office to subway to bedroom, and back again. People cast a wary eye your way. And who can blame them? My CEO was particularly disgruntled to find it nestling in my bag when a hiccup occurred on a recent P&L re-forecast. And to be honest, there's a small part of you that deliberately courts these charges. I'm reminded of the story of a friend who was reading an Ian McEwan novel and who happened to mention the fact to his grandfather, an esteemed Don of Literature at a suitably esteemed University. The Don snorted derisively and said, `Why are you wasting your time with that trash? The reason classics of literature are called `classic' my boy, is because they are genuinely better in every way than that ... that over-hyped tripe'. This possibly almost defines elitism, no doubt. But I have some sympathy with the crusty Don's view. We avoid classics of literature, to our own cost and impoverishment.

My fear in approaching DQ had to do with the idea that it was, in essence, a very long book with a limited theme (hopeless idealism banging its head repeatedly against reality), spun out ad infinitum. And in truth, it is that. But it's also so much more. What I wasn't prepared for was the shading and sophistication of characterisation embodied by the incomparable Sancho Panza. It is also very, very funny, ribald, humane, witty, daring and kind. I particularly enjoyed the `jousts' that Cervantes engages in with other literary forms, together with his portrait of Seventeenth Century Spain. Edith Grossman's wonderful translation brings this world to life with no seeming condescension to the reader or the author.

In truth, having finished the novel some weeks ago, I'm still digesting it and thinking it through. I can't tell you what it's `about'. It's `about' `everything'. Heh.


Riders in the Chariot (New York Review Books Classics)
Riders in the Chariot (New York Review Books Classics)
by Patrick White
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A vision of modern Hell, redeemed, 3 April 2013
RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT, Patrick White's sixth novel, is a humbling read. I'm struck by how often reputation and a sententious award (in this case, the Nobel Prize for Literature) can occlude a writer's works to such an extent that the main stream of literature will roll burbling on, its complaisant surface unruffled by the rather large, partly submerged rock that is that individually staggering talent.

The book details the past lives of four `Australian' mis-fits, and the convergence of their presents in the sterile Sydney suburb of Sarsaparilla. The characters are Miss Hare, an ageing spinster living in a dilapidated mansion suggestively known as Xanadu and who scuffles and scurries through the undergrowth; Dubbo, a prodigiously talented, half-caste painter who washes up in the fictional town of Sarsaparilla; Himmerlfarb, an archetypal Wandering Jew and Holocaust refugee; and the wondrously-named Mrs. Godbold, who is a deep well of Christ-like empathy.

The novel is an obvious re-telling of the Crucifixion story, but one which displaces, fractures and mirrors Christ into three of the four protagonists. Dubbo himself displaces the Wandering Jew's role as Historical Witness by himself witnessing Himmelfarb's crucifixion and denial - like Peter - of the victim. The novel is weightily symbolic; and employs a variety of voices and narrative techniques to engage and entertain the reader. At its core, it is both horrific, and horrifically comedic. White is merciless in his lampooning of then-contemporary Sydney `society'. He lances with the sharpest of blades all the petty pretentions of a myriad of Australian post-War social groups, whether Worker, Owner, Rentier or Priest.

It is almost a cliché of literary types that the hyper-aesthete homosexual writer will excel at wielding the diamond-sharp, eviscerating knife of social commentary whilst maintaining a suitably aloof, slightly disgusted posture. No so White. His humanity and love of these outcasts is heart-rending. Mrs. Godbold and Miss Hare are transcendent creations who linger long after their `flickering' has come to an end. This is a truly beautiful novel. I can't recommend it highly enough and I look forward with relish to reading White's other novels.


Pale Fire (Penguin Modern Classics)
Pale Fire (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.40

5.0 out of 5 stars Watch the novel(ist) bob-and-weave as the literary critics try and pin it/him to the ropes, 1 Mar 2013
This fictionalised Forward and Commentary on a fictional (but `real') poem by a fictional poet called John Shade, by a crazy Russian émigré masquerading as the exiled and deposed King of the fictional sub-arctic country of Zembla is guaranteed to satisfy the most determined of lit-crit detectives. And as evidenced by the reviews on Amazon and essays published elsewhere, there is no shortage of people compelled to argue a plausible interpretation for who is really who in this playful, funny, but bitter-sweet novel.

There seems to be a compulsion to excavate down to a notional foundation stratum of this novel of playful puzzles, mis-identifications and wilful mis-representations. Is Kinbote Botkin? Is Shade Kinbote? Is Kinbote Shade? Is Shade haunting Kinbote? And did Grey kill Shade mistakenly for Kinbote or for the Judge in whose house Kinbote resides?

The answers to these questions are diverting but ultimately miss the point. The pathways of meaning are deliberately constructed by Nabokov to betray, obfuscate and delight the reader. Almost every novel he wrote was a literary dance suspended in the aether. He had little interest in Reality or historical veracity. His Muse, to whom he paid the deepest respect, enjoins him to celebrate the imaginative instinct in all its manifold immanences. As Appel termed it, Nabokov wrote `involuted' novels employing a variety of literary techniques and tropes in order to celebrate and praise the creative impulse. Imagination and the many worlds that it could conjure are the end-point and starting-point for everything that he wrote. This is what his novels are `about'. They're about excavating the creative well-spring and then placing each imaginative world that emerges into a reflected and refracted discussion with many other preceeding or concurrent imaginative worlds (novels). Hence his disdain (sadly, in my view) of writers like George Orwell.

If you are to step into his labyrinthine twists-and-turns of clues and puzzles convinced that you'll find the one-and-only Exit, like some modern-day Theseus, then you mustn't complain in finding that you've fallen into his elaborate `hall-of-mirrors' trap. That's where he wants you. So just relax and enjoy! He really is far smarter than either you or me.


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