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Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Editions)
Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Editions)
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent edition, 15 July 2012
I am reviewing the Norton Critical Edition (revised 2006 edition), which, as well as containing Conrad's novella, has over 400 pages of supplementary material which is of great interest, and adds immeasurably to one's appreciation of HoD. Reading the other reviews, I see some people see this as a totally anti-imperialist work. I suggest these people need to read the supplementary materials to understand the deep ambiguities of the text. Particularly, the famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe published an essay in the 70s on racism in HoD that has been widely influential and is reprinted here (it's also freely available online). Conrad is obviously very critical of methods used by the Belgian rulers in the Congo, but whether he was ideologically opposed to imperialism is much more doubtful, as careful reading of HoD makes obvious.

The supplementary materials are in two sections: first is Background and Contexts. This includes Conrad's own letters and writings from his time in central Africa, extracts from Roger Casement's (an acquaintance of Conrad) Congo Report and other materials on the Belgian regime in the Congo and extracts from 19th-century thinkers on race, Hegel, Darwin, etc., among other stuff. The second section is Criticism, starting from contemporaries like Henry James and E.M. Forster, then later stuff including Achebe, postcolonialist critic Edward Said, and many others. There's even two essays on the film Apocalypse Now, loosely based on HoD, (in the 2006 edition, not in earlier editions), though these aren't, in my opinion among the best in the collection, and one on HoD in modern culture that references The Simpsons among other things.

Whether one likes it or not, HoD has been massively debated and by reading this contextual materials you get a great insight into key 20th-century intellectual debates on race, imperialism, civilization, the nature of mankind, etc. Therefore anyone who likes to think about big socio-cultural issues needs to understand the HoD debate, and this edition is a great way to do it.


Past and Present (The Gotham Library)
Past and Present (The Gotham Library)
by Thomas Carlyle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.20

0 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes powerful, but repetitive and intolerant, 21 May 2012
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Nobody reads Thomas Carlyle anymore, but back in the 1840s he was one of the most important writers in the English language. His style was not designed for general accessibility, but among his fellow writers his influence was incalculable - it's well documented that Dickens idolized him, and testimonies from George Eliot, Charles Kingsley, Emerson, Whitman, etc. also demonstrate his importance. Reading 1843's Past and Present, one of his central works and a reflection on the ills of his society, it is often hard to see why.

Carlyle has a prophetic style which is often powerful. He speaks with a complete moral certainty that is in itself impressive, and his turns of phrase are strange and unexpected, sometimes grotesque, but with a real wit and insight. But he's also very long-winded and repetitive in this book, and his central ideas are not very convincing or nuanced, and delivered with an intolerance that is hard to stomach. He lambasted his society's materialism and called for a return of spirituality. He found that feudalism was more conducive to spiritualism than laissez-faire capitalism, and called for a return to communities working together under strong leadership, which he felt factory owners and "captains of industry" should try to provide. If given strong, moral leadership, workers would forget their grievances and work as, he felt, they were born to do. If they didn't work even when given this great leadership and guidance, they should be severely punished.

Carlyle's tone is alternately empathetic to the poor's difficulties and unpleasantly authoritarian - sometimes it is simply vicious and sadistic. Reading it now, it's surprising that his contemporaries saw him as a voice of genuine concern for the poor - Engels was a big fan of this book! As literature, this book has a certain style, and an occasional power, but is marred by gross repetition. Ironically, part of Carlyle's philosophy was the worship of silence and the notion that action was everything and speech nothing, but he himself was a pure windbag, as this book shows. The interesting thing about Carlyle was the progression of his attitudes, the sensitivity present in much of his early work and some of the late, his descent from concern into hysterical anger in his later work. Past and Present, from around the middle of his career, shows him moving towards the latter, and so is mostly of historical interest. I believe that if his work is to be rediscovered by a new generation, Past and Present is not the place to start, but his earlier work, such as the pseudo-novel Sartor Resartus (Oxford World's Classics), a work of great verbal invention, relatively unobjectionable politics, moral depth, extreme sarcasm, and lyrical power.


The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry
The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry
by William Golding
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.95

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Undeservedly well-known, 21 May 2012
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This is certainly not a book for the general reader, as it goes out of its way to use specialist terms which it makes no effort to define in an accessible way. The basic idea is that every poet is competing with a predecessor and that in modern western poetry, there's so little room left for insight that the poet can only "misread" - it's all been said (mostly by Shakespeare) and the modern poet is fighting against the death of the western poetic tradition by a "strong misreading". This is, perhaps, an interesting premise, but Bloom's style is the ultimate in pretentiousness and obscurantism - the sort of writing that gives criticism a bad name. Though the title of this book is often used as a nice catchphrase, the book itself has had less influence than its fame would suggest, basically because the theory, where it is intelligible, is unworkable. In fact, the ideas are childishly simplistic, and that may be why Bloom felt the need of using a sophisticated and often impenetrable jargon.

In fairness to Bloom, in his later work he has toned down his defensive jargonism, and his recent The Anatomy of Influence (2011) takes the same theme as this book but doesn't bother pretending it has a unifying theory behind it, and is much the better for it. That book is a decent read, and plays to Bloom's strength, which is basically his genuine enthusiasm for the subject of poetry. Anxiety of Influence, though, is a book with no substance and no system, but written so that it takes several readings to actually realize this.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 23, 2012 11:22 AM BST


The Fool - Deluxe
The Fool - Deluxe

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One masterpiece song, the rest solid., 15 Jan 2012
This review is from: The Fool - Deluxe (Audio CD)
Recently I happened to hear the song "Billie Holiday" by Warpaint from their 2008 EP Exquisite Corpse on the radio a couple of times and it got into my head in a big way. A simple fingerpicked acoustic accompaniment to some beautiful vocal interplay between the three singers with nice harmonies going on. In its 7 minutes running time, it also incorporated a cover of Mary Wells' "My Guy", much slower and more bittersweet than the original, and with a great emotional punch in the context of "Billie Holiday".

So I watched a few clips of Warpaint on YouTube, noted they were an attractive bunch of young women, and liked their output enough to buy the deluxe edition of their first full album, 2010's The Fool: 2 cds, the first is The Fool album, 9 songs plus a bonus remix of "Shadows" and the second is the Exquisite Corpse EP, extended to 7 songs, and as their songs average around 5 minutes, its an EP that's closer in length to an album. My impression is that none of their other songs have as direct an impact as "Billie Holiday". In fact, the folkish style of Billie Holiday is not representative of their other songs. The only other song in that style is "Baby", which is rather middle-of-the-road and forgettable.

Most of their stuff is kind of psychedelic rock with elements of postpunk, sometimes the guitar and bass remind me of Siouxsie and the Banshees, I'm not sure why. The music is often instrumentally simple and repetitive, especially the guitar parts, but at its best hypnotic, and sometimes the songs have interesting dramatic arcs and moments of cathartic power. On The Fool, 6 songs have lead from Emily Kokal and 3 by Theresa Wayman, and I find the latter has a rather weak voice, never sounding like she's really cutting loose on the vocals. It's fine when she's singing harmonies or backing vocals but it's exposed when she sings lead. This is especially true on "Majesty", the most boring song on the album, with a listless melody and a mumbly, groany vocal. The lyrics are fairly banal, as well, a very earnest account of some failed relationship without any spin to mark out it from the 10 billion other earnest indies tunes about failed relationships. Emily Kokal's melodies generally have a bit more movement, and her voice is more dynamic and energetic - though not particularly technically good, either, if you think that's important.

Anyway, my opinion on this album is that Warpaint is an interesting band with a lot to offer, a lot of their songs have interesting stuff going on, and the general vibe of their music appeals to me, but "Billie Holiday" is the only one that can stop you in your tracks. The rest is still good enough to make me wonder what they'll do next and when their next album's due out, though.


Fingerprints of the Gods: A Quest for the Beginning and the End
Fingerprints of the Gods: A Quest for the Beginning and the End
by Graham Hancock
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly, the end times are upon us, 3 Sep 2011
"Fingerprints of the Gods" looks at various archaeological sites and concludes that in their sophistication they show evidences of a higher civilization than can be accounted for by our view of history. We see human history as linear, constantly reaching greater heights of development, but Hancock sees the achievements of some early civiliazations as being higher than anything that came until much later (or ever, even until the present, in some cases). These achievements seem to have sprung up out of nothing, with little evidence of a long process of perfecting the techniques involved, before they appeared already in perfect form, and then seemed to quickly disappear again.

He starts off with South and Central America, but his primary exhibits are the Giza pyramids, the Sphinx, and other Egyptian sites. He makes a good case that the pyramids are an anomolously awesome achievement of engineering, and notes that within a couple of generations the Egyptians went from architectural perfection to building pieces of crap that could be knocked over by a camel's fart. He also cites interesting geological evidence that the pyramids and the sphinx could be way older than generally thought, and also makes a good case that they weren't built as tombs or burial monuments, at least not principally.

As a layman, reading this part I felt that Egyptologists had been very hasty in coming to conclusions regarding the pyramids, and that they were ignoring evidence that didn't suit received theories. I feel Hancock was very successful in demonstrating that the consensus re dating and purpose of the pyramids raises more questions than it answers.

Hancock's own theory regards a super-civilization whose traces have now been lost - they lived in present-day Antarctica when that landmass was in a temperate zone, before crust displacement caused an apocalypse and shook the continents around. It was in this highly advanced civilization that massive strides in astronomy, engineering, etc. were made, then lost. Clearly, Hancock's theory is highly speculative, though he does make a decent effort to provide sources for all his conjectures, and he's obviously done a lot of reading across different disciplines.

This book raises great questions. It doesn't always answer them in a totally satisfactory way, but it's fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging, and a good read. His conclusion also relies a lot more on the Egyptian stuff than the American stuff, so I think that early part dealing with the Aztec/ Inca etc. could have been edited down considerably. He gets a bit carried away in the final pages, too, a bit too apocalyptic for my liking. Ok, Hancock works his figures to show the end of times is written in the stars and it's coming soon, but what about his final witness, that Hopi Indian who prophecies the end of the world "if people do not change their ways"? This Hopi guy in no ways says anything relevant to Hancock's theory, he appears to be a randomly-chosen the-end-is-nigh type nut, and to end on that note is a mistake, in my view. But mostly Hancock's tone is reasonably sober and scholarly, but not dry or pedantic. It has an air of intense intellectual commitment, which is always enjoyable to read when combined with a reasonable level of scholarly or journalistic rigour, which I feel this book has. A really fascinating book that I enjoyed greatly.

Note: This is the 1995 version. Later this book was updates, so I'd be interested to find out what he added or deleted.


Dickens Dictionary
Dickens Dictionary
by Gilbert A. Pierce
Edition: Paperback
Price: £23.28

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Useful little volume, 19 Aug 2011
This review is from: Dickens Dictionary (Paperback)
For the student of Dickens this is a inwallable (as Mrs Gamp would say) resource. It basically gives synopses of all Dickens' novels, and lists of characters with description. Description ranges from a few words to several paragraphs excerpted from the original. And each character entry has a list of all the chapters in which they appear, which is very useful. It's got the novels and seemingly all the short pieces as well, and Dickens' little known plays and poems. There's also the occasional illustration. At the end, the characters are indexed by name, so if you don't know what particular novel a given character is from, you can find it here. There's also an index by occupation, again very helpful. And though the list as headed as being "by occupation", there's also entries for various categories like "bachelors", "jews", or "Americans", that aren't occupations.

In all, this is a very useful book. It's a reprint of a 1900 publication, so I'd imagine there's more up-to-date books of this type, though I'm not sure if up-to-dateness is important here, as Dickens hasn't written anything new since 1900, unless I'm very much mistaken. I bought this in a remainders shop, so it was nice and cheap, and an excellent investment. A good reference work, and also with lots of nice excerpts for if you want to dip in whenever you are (again, as Mrs Gamp would say) so dispoged.


A Matter Of Life And Death [DVD]
A Matter Of Life And Death [DVD]
Dvd ~ David Niven
Price: £4.90

6 of 44 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unbridled jingoism, 9 April 2011
A lot of people still enjoy this film, over 60 years after its release, but I find it to be extremely dated in terms of the script and its politics and, notwithstanding the technical quality, not at all worth watching or relevant.

It's about a pilot named Carter (David Niven) shot down during the war who's supposed to die, according to heaven's account books, but doesn't for some reason. Heaven sends an emissary to look for him, but he doesn't want to go as he's fallen in love with an American girl. So, a trial is held in Heaven where he has to show that he should be allowed stay on earth.

It was released in 1946, just after the war had ended, so I guess feelings were running high, and relief and euphoria were in the air, but the unashamed jingoism on display here is, from this distance, an embarrassment. The English national character is displayed in a self-satisfied and rather arrogant way. The heaven in the story is presided over by people with English accents. The big message is how England and America should put aside their differences and realize their similarities. The rest of the world is kind of brushed aside. There is a grotesque parody of a Frenchman as heaven's emissary, a camp, preening fop who looks like he came from another film (a Carry On film, as another reviewer here has said).

A good indication of the arrogant attitude to the rest of the world is when the multi-national jury is challenged by counsel for Carter, one Doctor Reeves (David Livesey), because they're Indian, Irish, Boer, etc. and all have reason to dislike and be biased against the English. So Reeves asks for another jury, to which the American opposing counsel agrees, as long as they're not English, to which Reeves asks: "Why not English? Where else in the world have the rights of the individual been held so high?"
"In America, Sir! Where these rights are held to be inalienable."
"I doubt you have more practical freedom in America than in England. An Englishman thinks as he likes in religion and politics."
Then the other guy gives a rousing speech about America being the only place where "man is full grown", and Reeves, showing that great English sense of fair play, proclaims loudly: "THEN I CHOOSE A JURY OF AMERICANS!" Cue gasps of astonishment from all those watching. Nice one, Reeves

The annoying thing is the dismissal of the other nations, and the exaltation of the English and American characters at their expense - Reeves can accept an American jury can be trusted to overcome rivalries and judge fairly, but not a jury from other places. Plus it's just completely over-the-top, empty nationalist rhetoric that permeates the whole film, not to mention a sickly, love-conquers-all sentimentality.

Of course, it's kind of left open to say all the trial is in the pilot's head, but he's presented as such a reliable and all round good guy, a stereotypical romantic lead, it doesn't really fit, and the film can't be seen as an exploration of mental illness, the tone is too all-round celebratory.

Powell and Pressburger have a big reputation nowadays, and I'd enjoyed the other films of theirs I had seen (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Contraband) but this is way more simplistic and unnuanced than I would have thought them capable of. Maybe in the immediate aftermath of WWII this sort of film went down well, but in my opinion it has nothing to offer to a modern viewer.
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 12, 2013 4:39 PM BST


Shirley Jackson (U.S.Authors)
Shirley Jackson (U.S.Authors)
by Lenemaja Friedman
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An extra star for being the first, 18 Nov 2010
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Lenemaja Friedman's "Shirley Jackson" was published in 1975, making it the first "critical study" of Jackson's work, though I'm not sure if it deserves to be called a "critical study." It starts with a useful biographical sketch then has a chapter on the short stories, three on the various novels, and one on the "Family Chronicles." She spends most of the time synopsizing the works she's talking about, before making a few rather obvious observations that will probably already have occurred to anyone who's read them. Though Friedman is a professor of English Literature at an American college, this is fairly high-school type analysis.

Odd, too, how in the last paragraph of the final "Overview" she says Jackson is "not a major writer," contrasting her with "the more serious writer who wishes to come to grips with the strong passions of ordinary people in the workaday world, who prefers to deal directly with the essential problems of etc." This gives an idea of the triteness of Friedman's observations, but is also surprising as nowhere in the text before this final paragraph has she mentioned this opinion of Jackson. In the Preface she calls her "an important writer," so it seems she made an about-turn right at the end. More likely, given the overall standard of the book, she had just picked up that opinion somewhere and decided to regurgitate it without much thought.

So, I'll give it an extra star because it was the first "critical study" of Mrs. J., but luckily for those who were to come, it didn't set the bar very high.


Our Mutual Friend (Penguin Classics)
Our Mutual Friend (Penguin Classics)
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Great and Terrible Book, 7 Nov 2010
"Our Mutual Friend" was Dickens' last completed novel, published in monthly instalments in 1864-65. It's a complex tale with multiple interlinked plots and a large cast of characters. A lot of the action is set along the banks of the Thames River, and this scene is set splendidly, evoking a murky twilight world, full of shadowy characters and with a pervading air of menace. Another strand of the plot concerns the high society gathered around the Veneering and Podsnap families, and Dickens is relentlessly savage in his mockery of this set.

There's an awful lot going on in "Our Mutual Friend," and it has all the ingredients of a great book, but it also has other ingredients that aren't great at all. Dickens was at his best in depicting grotesquerie, criminality, seediness, violence, obsession and such, but in his attempts to depict relationships of affection or love, he was generally way off. In this book, the relationship between Bella and her father, "Rumty," is probably the worst. It has to be seen to be believed, so here's a passage:
She tugged at his coat with both hands, and pulled him all askew in buttoning that garment over the precious waistcoat pocket, and then tied her dimples into her bonnet-strings in a very knowing way, and took him back to London. Arrived at Mr. Boffin's door, she set him with his back against it, tenderly took him by the ears as convenient handles for her purpose, and kissed him until he knocked muffled double knocks at the door with the back of his head. That done, she once more reminded him of their compact and gaily parted from him. (Book II, Chapter VIII)
That would be impalatable enough if it described two young lovers, but between a father and daughter it's just bizarre, but there's plenty more where that came from in this book, unfortunately. That said, for most of the book, the sentiment takes a back seat to the dark strains of the plot. Sadly, in the last quarter of "Our Mutual Friend" the dreary melodrama and unctuously indulgent sentimentality takes over, for probably the most sustained tour de crap in late Dickens. Shame, as this book has a lot of good points.

Overall, if you haven't read Dickens before, this is probably not the best place to start; if you have, this is well worth reading for many reasons, but you might want to go into skimming mode at times to avoid the rubbish and remember it at its best.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 20, 2012 3:51 PM BST


Moral Desperado: Life of Thomas Carlyle
Moral Desperado: Life of Thomas Carlyle
by Simon Heffer
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Book about a Difficult Man, 12 Oct 2010
A man of huge influence in the mid-19th century, Thomas Carlyle isn't much read today. In his writings he's often irrational and unreasonable, a hardcore racist, and in his later works he often doesn't bother justifying his position beyond saying it's divinely ordained, though he's never clear about the nature of his religious beliefs either. He also mocks and ridicules all forms of liberalism, invariably using the word "cant" to describe liberal discourse, or indeed anything else he doesn't agree with.

Nevertheless, his early work "Sartor Resartus", free from the bile and fanaticism of some of his later work, is a highly stimulating, thought-provoking book, both funny and deeply searching. Because of my love for this book, I came to this biography.

He was born in 1795 in southern Scotland. He married at 30 to Jane Walsh. They had no children, and their marriage may have been unconsummated. The evidence, though inconclusive, suggests Carlyle was impotent, and that he only became aware of this after his marriage. Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining the undying splenetic fury that became more and more prominent in his writing. He was a hypochondriac, though he seems to have been very healthy throughout his life - photos from the 1860's show a well-built man, looking younger than his years and with a fine head of hair.

He was close to his parents and brothers, but was rarely able to muster a good word about anyone else, at least not without qualifying it in some way. In short, he was a tortured character, ever unsatisfied, always raging against the stupidity of the world. Given also, as his private writings show, to great self-pity.

This biography struck me as fair, thorough and well-written, which is all one can ask for in a biography. I don't find Carlyle to be a very likable man, but certainly an interesting one. Some of his writings were inexcusably vicious and thoughtlessly callous, and in his private life he was, though generous in some respects, very self-centred, very judgemental of others, and a wallower in melancholy. Still, "Sartor Resartus" was a great book, and he was undoubtedly a one-off. We shall not see his like again.


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