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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetry professor faces up to time, death and love
Grace McCleen's "The Professor of Poetry" is Elizabeth Stone, a 52 year old aged professor at a London University. When the book opens she has just discovered that a cancer scare is now in remission, but forced by her illness to take a sabbatical, she sets about researching her latest book based on some papers of TS Eliot. This takes her back to Oxford, to her alma mater...
Published 14 months ago by Ripple

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but ...
Although I enjoyed this book, a couple of flaws niggled me. I have a problem with someone who's a professor of poetry, supposedly with a feel and understanding for language and diction, continually describing vinyl records as `black spheres'. A sphere is a ball shape. A record is a disc shape. I've never heard records likened to spheres before. At first, I thought she...
Published 6 months ago by secret squirrel


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but ..., 5 Feb 2014
Although I enjoyed this book, a couple of flaws niggled me. I have a problem with someone who's a professor of poetry, supposedly with a feel and understanding for language and diction, continually describing vinyl records as `black spheres'. A sphere is a ball shape. A record is a disc shape. I've never heard records likened to spheres before. At first, I thought she must be talking about some outlandish, sci-fi music delivery system - then I realised.

Another thing that doesn't read right is her misuse of grammar. On a number of occasions, she writes `as if I was' instead of `as if I were' (future conditional).

Anyway, although it's hard to believe that anyone could be allergic to music or be music-phobic, McCleen's writing as a whole is convincing.

I would recommend her first novel, The Land of Decoration though. It's one of those books you wish would never end.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetry professor faces up to time, death and love, 4 July 2013
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
Grace McCleen's "The Professor of Poetry" is Elizabeth Stone, a 52 year old aged professor at a London University. When the book opens she has just discovered that a cancer scare is now in remission, but forced by her illness to take a sabbatical, she sets about researching her latest book based on some papers of TS Eliot. This takes her back to Oxford, to her alma mater and raises the prospect of seeing her former professor there, a man convinced of the young Miss Stone's potential at an early age, but whose last meeting was somewhat awkward. McCleen looks at the issues raised by generations of poets, namely time, death and love. For Professor Stone, the first has passed, the second come uncomfortably close and the third remains unknown to her. What's more, her academic focus is on the music of love poetry which is somewhat ironic in that she avoids human relationships perhaps due to the death of her mother at an early age and an unhappy foster experience, while also having a peculiar aversion to music. Perhaps though this is what allows her a detached ability to write academic studies.

Like many writers before her, following on from a book of such extraordinary critical acclaim as "The Land of Decoration" is always a challenge. There are some familiar elements though. Again, McCleen writes of a detached outsider and there is a similar haunting sadness to her writing which make McCleen such an interesting writer. However, in other ways until the end of the book where she does pull a rabbit out of the hat, it suffers somewhat in comparison. The main disappointment is that it lacks the originality of her debut book and in fact some of her elements border on cliché; there is the constant ringing of bells to signal the passing of time in the "City of Books" and some fairly predictable use of the weather to signal changes in fortune for the characters. Even her main character's name, Stone, is hardly a subtle reference to her character. Most of all though, while "The Land of Decoration" felt drawn from the very depths of McCleen's soul, this feels much more hewn from her mind and the result is that it lacks some of the tension and pathos of her first book.

Also in her first book the main character is a young child for whom it is easier to gain the reader's sympathy. It's rather harder to evoke the same reaction to a middle aged woman who has had the chance to make life choices of her own to seem like the victim and it needs the health scare to engage our emotional contact with Professor Stone.

It is also worth noting that this is a very intellectual subject matter and the nuances of poetry analysis are complex and one assumes intellectually rigorous, but unless you are well versed (sorry, bad choice of word) with this art, then it remains somewhat high brow. If, on the other had, you are highly knowledgeable about poetry analysis or the works of TS Eliot amongst others, then you may get more out of this but I confess that I have never enjoyed Eliot's works. What doesn't help is that Professor Stone's work presented here is less clear than the one instance where a competitor academic's works are represented and for all her former professor's claims that Stone has a natural ability to convey her points, in fact, I found her writings and arguments to be difficult to follow.

Yet for all this, McCleen's ability to write about something that is so difficult to express, namely the sound of poetry, is impressive and there are passages where her descriptions are amongst the most poetic in themselves. Moreover, once you strip away the academia, there is a touching story of a relationship at its heart and where the focus is on this element, McCleen is superbly moving. McCleen's dark, detached characters make her a fascinating writer.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent and Beautifully Written, 4 July 2013
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
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This review is from: The Professor of Poetry (Kindle Edition)
Our heroine, Elizabeth Stone, is 52 years old; she is single, independent, and a respected academic working as an English professor at UCL. She is dedicated to her work and, with her sensible wardrobe of cardigans, pleated skirts and neat blouses, Elizabeth's life follows the path she has planned for. However, when she begins to feel unwell, collapses during a lecture and falls asleep during a meeting, only to wake up and find herself dribbling onto her cardigan, Elizabeth realises that maybe she needs help and reluctantly visits her doctor to have her health checked. When a brain tumour is diagnosed and subsequently successfully treated, Elizabeth, now in remission, is advised to take a sabbatical - and, in doing so, she takes on a whole new lease of life.

Elizabeth decides to return to Oxford: "the city of books", a city she hasn't revisited for more than thirty years, to carry out research on some of the papers of the poet T.S. Eliot, which she feels may help to make her next book her 'magnum opus'. There, Elizabeth becomes reacquainted with Professor Edward Hunt: "Black boots, scuffed, laces knotted three times. Jumper: too large, small hole near cuff. Hair: grey but still rising in ridiculous tufts" - who was Elizabeth's tutor when she was studying in Oxford, and a man to whom she was in thrall all those years ago ...

Intelligent, beautifully written and, at times, rather moving and intense, this story, with a strong evocation of place, is about being alone and how some people bury themselves in their work in order to fill their empty spaces; it's about how people avoid confronting issues that they would rather not face, and it's about being trapped in the past and regretting that life has not been lived to the full. It's also very much a book about books, so if you enjoy literature and literary criticism, then you will find much that is satisfying to read in this unusual and absorbing story. I must admit that I have not read Grace McCleen's debut novel: The Land of Decoration which, I understand, is very different to this second book, but having enjoyed 'The Professor of Poetry' has made me very interested in obtaining a copy and I shall certainly be looking out for the author's next literary offering.

4 Stars.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Grand tragedy - stunning prose - intimate portrait of the Professor of Poetry, 27 May 2014
This took a very long time to read. Not because the plot was complicated, no - but because so many sentences are of such great beauty that they deserved reading again, and savouring. McCleen is right up there with the literary big guns in my opinion. In this book she has developed a very strange character:a solitary little girl named Elizabeth Stone (initially brought up by her mother in a house by the sea, then who goes to live with aloof foster parents)who is clever enough to get a place at a prestigious university where she is a star student for her hipster mentor, Professor Edward Hunt. Their intellectual admiration is mutual, and it leads to a chaste, but passionate friendship.

Despite her growing love for her Professor (although she does not recognise it as that) Elizabeth has made an internal vow to make her work her life, in which there is no place for men. After leaving the 'city of books' (never named but thought to be Oxford) she pursues her own academic career, becoming a Professor of Poetry.

The novel examines Elizabeth's internal conflicts and influences that have formed her personality, skipping back and forth through time; her childhood, her university days, her interactions with Edward. It's difficult to like her - she is aloof, selfish, totally driven to succeed intellectually and makes minimal effort to fit in with the social scene. Yet McCleen keeps us completely interested in both Elizabeth's thought processes and her behaviours with such mesmerising prose that it has the ability to evoke all the reader's senses at once.

The novel begins with the Professor of Poetry being given the news that the brain cancer she developed at 52 is in remission. This brush with cancer galvanises her into returning to the city where she was a student to undertake research for what she hopes will be her life's masterpiece. Whilst there she rekindles her friendship with Edward, and the story takes off, weaving a grand tragedy.

This is a book that will stay in the memory long after the last page has been read. It could also be viewed as an example of literary fiction of the highest order. Wonderful.
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3.0 out of 5 stars A sad tale of unresolved love., 28 April 2014
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This review is from: The Professor of Poetry (Kindle Edition)
I was attracted to the novel by the claimed poetic content, which was interestingly delivered, but the story, spanning several decades was difficult to get into and the moment of time being discussed not always clear, About a third of the way through the tale began to justify my patience and the final chapters whilst guessable were well developed and the conclusion was satisfying but no more.
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4.0 out of 5 stars 'I Wasted Time, and Now Time Doth Waste Me', 3 Mar 2014
By 
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
Grace McCleen's second novel (in fact I think her first in terms of writing, second in terms of publication) is a dreamy, gently melancholy meditation on middle-aged regrets, with a faint hope offered that some wrongs and misunderstandings can be righted. Elizabeth Stone, McCleen's heroine, is a 50-year-old Professor of Poetry at UCL, who has sacrificed virtually everything for the life of the mind. She lives in a small, rented, characterless flat, has virtually no friends, has never had a partner and never bought herself any pretty clothes - as far as we know she's not travelled much, or taken part in any pleasurable activity outside of reading and writing, either. Shortly before she is due to complete a magnum opus on Milton, Elizabeth Stone is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, and given a poor prognosis. When she goes into what seems to be a miracle remission, she decides to give up her Milton project, and instead return to the 'city of books' (Oxford, though never named) where she studied, to pursue research on T.S. Eliot and the essential musicality of poetry. It turns out that the Eliot research is not Elizabeth's only reason for wishing to return to the city of books. She wishes to see her own 'Professor of Poetry', Edward Hunt, who supervised her in her second year, who really cared about her, and who might - had her life and temperament been different - become her lover. Once back in Oxford, Elizabeth is overcome with memories both of Professor Hunt and her student days, and of her mother, who died when Elizabeth was five, and whose death (a suicide, we assume) goes at least some way towards explaining Elizabeth's self-hatred, fear of bodily contact and hatred of music (which her mother loved, and used to cry while playing). Elizabeth begins to wish, at last, that she'd lived her life differently - but is it too late for her to change?

If you can get through the first couple of chapters - a horrifying description of what it might be like to be alone and suffering from cancer - it's well worth it, as McCleen is undoubtedly a talented and very original voice. The descriptions of Elizabeth's lonely seaside childhood with her mother are exquisite, and there's also some wonderful (if slightly idealized at times) descriptions of Oxford. McCleen understands well the psychology of tormented adolescent girls who mortify their flesh out of their desire to become academic high achievers, and she portrays the confusion of the child Elizabeth and the conflicting, unhappy emotions of the adolescent Elizabeth very well. She's also good on writing about the fear shy people have of being touched. And I thought the ending of the book (which struck a chord with the end of Eliot's 'Little Gidding', one of the poems studied by Elizabeth) was very beautiful. The relationship between Elizabeth and Edward was both fascinating and moving for much of its span. In certain ways, the novel reminded me of some of the work of Salley Vickers, particularly in the sense that it's never too late to find comfort of a kind.

However, McCleen is a far more pessimistic writer than Vickers, despite the comfort offered us by the end of the book, and much of the novel is painfully bleak, sometimes to the point of being unrealistic. I've lived and worked with academics for most of my life, and find it hard to believe that anyone quite as dysfunctional in terms of personality as Elizabeth could have made it to a high level in academe (particularly in such a lively department as the one at UCL), or that, with only one book under her belt (though McCleen changes her mind at one point, and implies she's written more) she would have become a Professor. McCleen appears at times to rather have it in for her heroine, as when she describes Elizabeth huddling under a mackintosh in the hot sun (which makes her sound more like one of the 1930s spinsters in poems such as Auden's 'Miss Gee'), refuses to use the older Elizabeth's Christian name or repeatedly tells us how drab she looks. There are times in the book (particularly with the library visit towards the end) where it seems the author is almost enjoying heaping misfortune on her central character, and other times where I felt McCleen tried too hard to alienate us from Elizabeth - in her bad manners in one of her last tutorials with Professor Hunt, for example, or in the scenes where, as a 50-something woman, she refuses to show this wholly sympathetic man any warmth or kindness. Kate Clanchy in 'The Guardian' described the book as 'anti-feminist' - while I wouldn't go that far, I did feel there was an implication that high-flying academic women will be not very good at living. And there's little of the magical sense of something 'beyond the physical' of Salley Vickers's novels; McCleen's ultimate implication is that much of our life and work will not matter, and the most we can hope for is to offer each other small physical comforts while we're still alive.

There were also aspects of the book that I felt needed a bit of an edit, particularly in terms of facts. Vinyl records look like discs, not spheres, and 'To His Coy Mistress' is not a sonnet. It would be interesting to find out if many people do have a reaction of hatred to music to the extent Elizabeth does - in my experience, those who don't like it are usually indifferent to it or find it 'boring' rather than being 'possessed' and made ill by it. If Edward Hunt was still teaching when Elizabeth was 50, he'd have been in his early 30s when she was a student, if that, which would mean he would almost certainly have been too young to be a professor when he taught her. It is extremely unlikely that his personal life would have just 'stood still' for the thirty years that Elizabeth was absent from the 'city of books' - he'd have been very likely to have married or had at least one or more serious relationships; and bearing in mind the smallness of the academic world, wouldn't he and Elizabeth have been likely to bump into each other at conferences? And I can't believe Elizabeth would not have ever visited Oxford for research after leaving. Albert the white-whiskered porter seemed a curiously irreverent character, and his language sounded more 1910s than 1990s. All these are points that made the narrative slightly unconvincing for me.

However, all this being said, I found that certain passages - the final two scenes, some of Elizabeth's tutorials, the scenes dealing with her childhood and some of the discussions of poetry - were remarkably fine, and left me quite breathless. An uneven read, but one that in parts I found truly superb.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Leaves you feeling sad..., 6 Feb 2014
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...and makes you think of words not said and paths not taken. Because of this, 'The Professor of Poetry' surely has universal appeal. However, I was distracted and a little irritated by the author's attempts to create an imaginary sort of Oxbridge - with recognisable bits of each place - and giving it the name 'the city of books' got on my nerves.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wordy, not much action, 21 Aug 2013
By 
E. Armstrong "bookworm" (North East England) - See all my reviews
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I read another of Grace McClean books and found it very unusual, so decided to try another. Unfortunately this book is extremely verbose!! - why use one word when 500 will do???!!! There is very little to the story - An Oxford don and his erstwhile student, now a famous literature expert, meet again after many years, when she is dying of a brain tumour. Very little happens but every little action, dream or thought belonging to the heroine is described in immense flowery detail. using a vocabulary that only Oxford dons specialising in English literature will understand. I have always thought I had a very large vocabulary but I must admit, there were about 9 or 10 words I had never even come across before!! However there were one or two quotations (I liked one of the Shakespeare sonnets quoted)which are very enjoyable. Ms McClean certainly can use words, but whether she can write a great book, - well I'll have to read another to be able to judge, but I'm not holding my breath!Oxford graduates will probably enjoy this book for reasons of nostalgia.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Moving in the right direction, 6 Sep 2013
Relieved to see Grace McCleen has taken a decisive step away from the indignity of Richard & Judy though what fans of Jasmine Nights and After the Fall will make of Professor Stone is anybody's guess. McCleen's writing has a delicate excellence. Despite its somewhat rococo style, and dangerously-close-to-parodying of Oxford life, this novel indicates she has great promise. Was surprised by, and enjoyed the trace of wit. Good work.
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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a strange and dream-like read, 17 Aug 2013
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i liked this as I'm a poet myself, But it might be too much for people who aren't in too.
terested in literature. The writing style is a bit eccentric
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The Professor of Poetry
The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen
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