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Jon Chambers (Birmingham, England)
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English Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
English Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Jonathan Bate
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Contextualising text, 18 Sept. 2011
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There's a lot of ground to cover in Eng Lit: 'sweeping across two millennia and every literary genre', as the inside flap promises. For a while, it seems as though the need to cram everything in might be the book's undoing - even though at 167pp it's one of the longer Shorts. Such worries are premature: analysis comfortably outweighs potted literary history.

For me, it isn't the chapter on Shakespeare (Bate's specialism) that forms the book's highlight, but the last two, on the novel and on multicultural English. In the first of these, the development of the 'stream of consciousness' in such novels as Ulysses and Orlando is considered in relation to recent work in brain science. As with The Genius of Shakespeare, therefore, Bate shows a willingness to look beyond the confines of his own subject in order to understand it more fully. And in his concluding chapter, entitled The Englishness of English Literature?, Bate examines a diversity that has characterised the literature of these islands since even the pre-modern, pre-mass immigration era, with its sharp political, religious and social divisions.

Witty as well as thought-provoking, the book is itself literary (I noted homage to EM Forster and Blake, and doubtless missed other instances) in a way that will probably appeal to those who are 'in' without annoying those who aren't. It is also wide-ranging, up to date and perceptive (Coleridge and Hazlitt are seen as the originators of opposing 'formalist' and 'historicist' schools of criticism). With so much to commend it, we might even excuse its rather sniffy attitude to the on-line review - the 'free-for-all ... in which everyone is a critic'. Bate does, after all, concede that such electronic chat may just be an extension of the democratisation that began in the C18 coffee house.

Ultimately, therefore, one of the more inspired and inspiring VSIs.


Hancock's Half Hour: Series One (The Golden Age Of BBC Radio Comedy)
Hancock's Half Hour: Series One (The Golden Age Of BBC Radio Comedy)
by Alan Simpson
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £13.25

4.0 out of 5 stars More silver than gold, 16 Sept. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Galton and Simpson are undoubtedly a scriptwriting duo to be reckoned with and it's a good bet that their work will be regarded as classic in a hundred years' time (the period, incidentally, that Dr Johnson considered the minimum requirement for 'classic' status).

This particular batch of Hancock Half Hours includes some of the lesser known programmes (compared to, say, The Radio Ham and The Blood Donor). There are one-liners aplenty, as you'd expect, but some of them sound a bit studied, and dated. (And the audience laughter is something I could well have done without.) Probably unlikely, therefore, to convert the doubters, but just as likely to enthuse to the already converted.


New Urban Farmer
New Urban Farmer
by Celia Brooks Brown
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Down to Earth, 24 July 2011
This review is from: New Urban Farmer (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The front cover of this book shows the author on her north London allotment. It is clearly not the usual kind of photo that graces the cover of a food or gardening book, for a rusty yellow skip is plainly visible. But the picture is actually quite revealing - inspiring, even. For this is the environment that most of us actually inhabit, as opposed to the one of fantasy and advertising chic. Elsewhere, however, there are more conventional pictures of dishes and their raw materials (the fruit and veg from the allotment) as artfully arranged as in any studio photo-shoot.

This ambivalence mirrors the text. The author records the lows as well as the highs: returning from holiday to discover all the tomatoes destroyed by blight, for instance. We know the feeling and welcome the honesty.

New Urban Farmer is a book to inspire you to get growing your own food, from the very simple (herbs, garlic, tomatoes, beetroot etc.) to the more demanding. And in areas ranging from simple window boxes to the whole allotment.

Even with the minimum space and effort, this is a book that could repay itself quickly. It could also bring the associated benefits of health and taste, as well as savings.


Brian Johnston - Johnners': A View from the Boundary: Test Match Special (BBC Audiobooks)
Brian Johnston - Johnners': A View from the Boundary: Test Match Special (BBC Audiobooks)
by Brian Johnston
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £9.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Hit and Miss, 24 July 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Who says nostalgia is a thing of the past? Not with this Brian Johnston CD it isn't. Although not all of the six invited lunchtime guests are consistently entertaining, there should be something here for all lovers of cricket.

First off is, perhaps, the best. Playwright Ben Travers was already 94 when he marched up the 79 steps to the TMS studio (something of an achievement in itself). His reminiscences are remarkable. The first Test Match he remembers seeing, he tells us, was at The Oval in 1896 when, aged nine, he went with his father! One of the England batsmen was a certain WG Grace. (His mother, apparently, was his patient. This fact alone tells us something about the very narrow social milieu of the period, when cricket was still very much a gentleman amateur's game.) As expected, John Cleese is bright and breezy and Michael Parkinson predictably smooth. Even the less engaging guests have something to commend them (for me, they aren't so inviting largely because of their frightfully, awfully plummy accents): the tied Test between Australia and West Indies, for example, or the news that Boris Karloff's real name was Pratt ('Hmm. I can see why he changed it', retorts Johnston).

The great thing about Test Match Special was, and still is, its capacity to entertain, even on a miserable, rain-interrupted day's play (maybe that should read 'especially' on a rain-interrupted day!). If cricket itself is a game of hits and misses, so is this offering. But, like the game again, the former are there to be savoured.


Vivaldi: The French Connection 2, Concertos for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Bassoon & Strings
Vivaldi: The French Connection 2, Concertos for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Bassoon & Strings
Price: £12.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vibrant, 29 Jun. 2011
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Aren't coincidences fascinating? Last April, I read a book on Vivaldi's music for flute (and reviewed it on Amazon in the same month). One of the chapters contained a postscript about some lost recorder concertos, mentioned in the sales catalogue of Dutch bookseller, Nicholaas Selhof. One of the concertos listed there, Il Gran Mogol, was duly discovered in the same month, ie April 2010, in an Edinburgh library! This CD features the world premiere recording of that concerto (together with another first - the premiere of the violin concerto, RV365).

As it happened, the discovery didn't prove quite as revolutionary as was hoped. Il Gran Mogol contains music that has been known about for a long time - and available on the excellent Opus 111 label. The Concerto in d is a variant of RV431 in e (as its redesignation of RV431a testifies). But whereas RV431 is missing its slow movement, this one is complete. And it is the quality of the slow movement, with its beautifully simple and sinuous lines, that more than makes up for the 'duplicated' outer movements. Vivaldi's works for flute comprise his most consistently inventive and engaging compositions in the concerto genre, and this one is up there with the best of them. Reviewing the world premier performance (also by La Serenissima, last January) the Guardian seemed more interested in the find than in the music itself and damned the piece with faint praise, calling it 'good'. RV431a certainly merits more than such a lukewarm description. Especially when the solo flute is played by Katy Bircher, who gives a vastly superior reading to whoever it was that played an unaccompanied snatch of the slow movement shortly after its discovery (sorry, whoever).

There are plenty of highlights on this superb CD, which features playing of the highest order, inspired composition, a varied programme and a richly detailed recording (witness the wonderful earthiness of the rondo finale of RV473 for bassoon!). A favourite of mine is the Concerto for violin and oboe, RV543. This piece, as new to me as the two world premiere recordings, rather unpromisingly requires the soloists to play in unison. Uncharacteristically, it is more French suite than Italian concerto, having four movements (none of them genuinely slow) and concluding with a Minuet. The result, however, is unmistakably, and irresistibly, Vivaldian.

La Serenissima deserve much credit for their pioneering efforts to extend Vivaldi's repertoire still further. They play with panache, wit and historically informed wisdom. The French theme linking the works on this CD might sometimes appear tenuous (apparently, RV431a's manuscript uses French paper!). Never mind. The more important link throughout is quality.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 13, 2016 4:16 AM BST


Anthony and Cleopatra: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
Anthony and Cleopatra: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Multifaceted, 30 April 2011
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To some, Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, to others a closet drama and even a problem play, Antony and Cleopatra seems to possess, like its heroine, 'infinite variety'.

Despite its obvious ability to enthral and perplex, the play has had a relatively impoverished stage history. Reasons for its lack of success are, again, varied: it is 'unactable'; its most successful post-war Cleopatras (Peggy Ashcroft and Judy Dench) have been 'too English' to suggest exotic allure, etc. Michael Neill's edition does a thorough job charting the play's troubled stage life, even if his performance section is overlong and not well integrated into his discussion. I, for one, found the composite review notices (often synthesising two or three individual reactions into a single response) almost suffocating in their detail. Those readers particularly interested in past productions and their reception, however, will be spared much trawling through press cuttings.

This edition's real strength lies is its formidable and wide-ranging Introduction, often drawing upon radical recent criticism (by the likes of Janet Adelman and Jonathan Dollimore). Some of the more rewarding ideas include the play's relationship to mythic archetypes (Omphale and Hercules, Mars and Venus); Antony's wrestling with (male) identity; Roman constructions of 'otherness'; and the play's parallels with other Shakespearean tragedies - especially with its 'successor and companion piece, Coriolanus'.

This is yet another Oxford Shakespeare with a baffling bibliography, however. Despite making fullest use of a book by the above-mentioned author Janet Adelman, she is not listed here. (Unlike Styan Thirby, whose unpublished annotations of C18 editions earn him four entries.) Puzzling.

At times dense and challenging, the author's fondness for Scottish dialect words can obfuscate further (the term 'eldritch humour' appears three times). Nonetheless, Neill's Antony is indispensable to any serious student of the play.


A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid Dream, 29 Jan. 2011
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Most editors are well disposed towards the plays they are asked to edit and Peter Holland is no exception - he tells us that there was no other title he'd have chosen in preference. Not everyone would agree with him about the play's merits, however. His undergraduate friend considered it 'a pappy play', and there have been plenty of other disparaging comments across the centuries. (Famously, Pepys described Dream as 'the most insipid ridiculous play', while for Malone it was unbelievably thin and trite.) After reading this exemplary edition, which reveals much of its full complexity, Dream should not be mistaken for such simple and unsubstantial fare again.

Holland begins with a succinct account of modern dream theories, before tackling Classical, medieval and Renaissance views. Particularly interesting is his discussion of treatments of dream in the literature of Shakespeare's contemporaries, where Robert Greene's dismissive stance approximates to that of the rational (but limited) Theseus, while Thomas Lodge's more credulous acceptance of dreams and their mystery aligns him more closely with Hippolyta.

The Introduction is astute as well as comprehensive. It observes that doubling the roles of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania has become routine since the 60s, but is critical of those who see this revival of doubling primarily as a solution to financial or pragmatic problems, insisting that it originally had an 'interpretative' function. Holland sees the Elizabethan practice of doubling as a structural device, where 'the audience's recognition of an actor was used to underline the interconnectedness of a series of roles he performed in a play.'

Although I'm no historian of critical thought, it seems to me at least that Holland anticipates some of the more influential work of recent scholars. Louis Montrose's study of the Elizabethan theatre's subversion of patriarchal values is hinted at in this edition's Commentary. (See the note on Bottom's apparently innocent use/misuse of the word 'deflowered', p247n, for example.) Equally praiseworthy are the references made to those filmed versions of Dream, like Reinhardt's (1935), that might be considered too dated for extensive, post-Peter Brook discussion.

Arden's forthcoming Dream will have a difficult job surpassing its Oxford competitor, first published in 1994. It's just a shame that in the intervening 17 years OUP haven't managed to reference page numbers mentioned in at least three sections of the book: Introduction, Editorial Procedures and Commentary. 'See p000' might suffice at proof stage, but it really isn't good enough so many years on. Peter Holland's informed and constantly illuminating edition deserves better.


The History of King Lear: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
The History of King Lear: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An alternative take, 19 Dec. 2010
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We students of the 70s and 80s didn't realise how relatively simple things were back then (from a textual point of view, anyhow). Nowadays, when it comes to some of Shakespeare's seminal works, it isn't so much a question of which play we're studying as which version of the text. As Wells tells us in his introduction, the 'conflated' editorial tradition of combining the two early sources of 1608 (Quarto) and 1623 (Folio) was begun by Lewis Theobald in 1735 and followed right up until 1986. Wells himself was one of the series editors of the groundbreaking Oxford Collected Works of that year. This volume presented two different versions of King Lear, one based on the Quarto, the other on the Folio.

The thinking behind this illustrates changing attitudes. The Quarto is now seen as an early, working version of the play, not a 'corrupt' or 'unauthorised' one. The Folio meanwhile is viewed as a revised version, by Shakespeare or Shakespeare's company - the product of several years of performance, adaptation and rethinking. Wells bases this single-play Oxford Shakespeare on the Quarto, not because it is a superior text, but because his main rivals (ie Arden and New Cambridge) base their editions on the Folio. This fact alone makes Wells' version worth serious consideration.

Another advantage of this edition is that it includes The Ballad of King Lear. Although published in 1620 (ie some fifteen years or so after the play's composition) it might just cast light, Wells argues, upon some aspects of the play's early stage history. Moreover, here as elsewhere, The Oxford Shakespeare is alone in providing an index of unusual words and phrases used in the play. This excellent innovation helps the reader find the passage they're looking for without the need for a computer search.

Despite unpromising beginnings ('Once upon a time, probably in 1605, a man called William Shakespeare, using a quill pen, wrote a play about the legendary King Lear ...') there are, in fact, many reasons why students might want to opt for this particular Lear. Not least, because it skilfully introduces us to a wealth of critical ideas about the play. One of a modern editor's main tasks is to help us sort out the wheat from a mountain of chaff, and a selection of the more influential and important thinking on Lear is neatly summarised in the Introduction. Two bibliographies offer scope for further, independent analysis, while Wells himself is especially illuminating on the play's language and structure.

Excellent editions of King Lear are already out there, especially those by RA Foakes and Jay L Halio. But this one manages to offer something new and stimulating.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 1, 2014 11:05 AM BST


Tender: Volume II, A cook's guide to the fruit garden
Tender: Volume II, A cook's guide to the fruit garden
by Nigel Slater
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.40

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poetry by the plateful, 8 Dec. 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Nigel Slater has been called Britain's best food writer, and reading his Tender Volume II it's easy to see why. It bears witness to his gifts as a writer of sensuous, sumptuous prose. Anyone stumbling across this passage out of context, for example, might mistake it for a Booker Prize entry: By mid-September, 'the garden darkens to the colour of ginger cake, here and there a shot of saffron, brilliant ochre or darkest crimson. The colours, I would guess, of the Vatican at prayer.'

This isn't just Keatsian or Cider with Rosie sensuality, though. The book offers practical tips on culinary and horticultural matters, plus the benefit of his experience and taste. A baking apple that 'leaves the Bramley standing' is the Peasgood's Nonsuch, with its 'cloud-like froth and deep flavour'. The damson tree to plant, he urges, is the Farleigh, for its rich flavour, despite its modest-sized fruit. (Slater is fond of the plum family: 'Should plum crumble be on my lips when I die, then I will go a happy man.') But the author doesn't pretend to be an expert on everything and refers us to others where necessary - like Morgan and Richard for all things apple.

To risk making this review read like a Press Release for Fourth Estate, I'd suggest that at such a hefty on-line discount, this one really is a peach of a book on just about every level. Although our Nigel can seem dangerously addicted to cream and crankily obsessive at times (apparently, two of his little rituals are 'trying to maintain an unbroken length of peel while paring a Bramley [and] sucking a Murray mint all the way through without crunching') his candour, wit and wisdom give his books charisma and depth. And surprises. It was in these pages that I learnt that walnut shells play a part in the manufacture of dynamite!

It's usually imaginative recipes and photography that sell food books. Here, we find beguiling prose as well. (And even the rather stylish typeface is strangely alluring!) All in all, Tender II provides the most compelling arguments for converting lawn to fruit patch.


Shakespeare's Sonnets (Arden Shakespeare)
Shakespeare's Sonnets (Arden Shakespeare)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.94

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bitter sweets, 5 Dec. 2010
In one of the most brilliant and revolutionary Arden3s to date, Katherine Duncan-Jones argues against scholarly consensus. For starters, she suggests that although first mentioned in 1598 (Francis Meres and the 'sugar'd sonnets') most of the 154 poems were not Elizabethan creations at all but the products of the mature, Jacobean Shakespeare - hence their often knotty complexity and their relatively bitter, 'salty' tone. It is an unconventional view, like many others in this radically different edition.

By any account, this is an erudite, thoroughly researched and thoroughly readable edition with sonnet-by-sonnet annotations that don't assume undue expertise on the part of the reader. Unlike previous Arden editions, therefore, this third series issue is ideal for readers wanting an in-depth and accessible analysis of poems that have long had the reputation of being difficult ('laboured perplexities', in the words of the C18 Shakespeare scholar, George Steevens).

Duncan-Jones is herself often highly ingenious. Certain sonnets she considers numerologically significant. She detects a 'strongly misogynistic bias' throughout the sequence. Even those sonnets addressed to a female (ie 127-54) arouse her suspicions that the speaker has a male audience in mind as he exhibits a strong distaste for the female form generally and for 'the negative connotations of menstruation' in particular. These suspicions are strengthened on realising that the total number of these 'Dark Lady' sonnets is 28 - one for each day of the lunar cycle. (Duncan-Jones is the first to draw our attention to this detail.) Other numerical correspondences are more literary. The great central sequence (18-126) comprises 108 sonnets, thereby matching Sidney's collection. Sonnet 12, meanwhile, alludes to the number of hours in a day; 60 to hour/'our minutes'; 70 (threescore and ten) is followed by the sonnet which begins 'No longer mourn for me when I am dead'; 144 is concerned with the 'gross'-ness of his evil angel, and so on. Whether or not such decoding has unearthed Shakespeare's original intentions, there is no doubt that the sonnets were written for a highly sophisticated literary culture that, unlike ours, 'knew the rules' governing cryptic conceits.

But if the sonnets themselves aren't sufficiently full of puzzles, here's another: in her Preface, Duncan-Jones claims to have 'avoided' John Kerrigan's 1986 Penguin edition, although 'excellent in its subtlety and scholarship', for fear of over-reliance. Yet apart from both agreeing that 'A Lover's Complaint' is an integral part of the overall scheme (sonnets-complaint, following Samuel Daniel's model, Delia) their rival editions seem poles apart. He (JK) guards against using the sonnets to speculate about Shakespeare the man and is dismissive of such fantasies and 'crackpot theories'. She (KD-J) considers the sequence's title, 'Shakespeare's Sonnets', of paramount importance, and one, moreover, that invites, and even positively insists upon, autobiographical inference. She in turn is dismissive of editors and critics who avoid confronting the poems' homoeroticism by speaking, for example, of the cult of 'comradely affection in literature' (Kerrigan). Her verdict on such thoughts: 'Sidney Lee lives!' (Lee being a critic who, immediately after Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, sought to conceal the Sonnets' potentially explosive homoeroticism. For respectable Victorians, the Sonnets were overspiced.) So much for excellence, subtle scholarship and potential over-reliance.

Combative, therefore, as well as eloquent, this edition doesn't so much fence-sit as hurdle them full-on. Whether you agree with Duncan-Jones's stance or not, there's no denying that her case is vigorously pursued and her evidence presented with skill. Admirably, her edition preserves the arrangement of the 1609 Quarto together with much of its spelling and punctuation on the grounds that excessive modernising of spelling results in blurring potential double meanings. And punctuation? Her edition is the first modern one to restore the empty parentheses at the end of the six-couplet 'Sonnet' 126. The two pairs of brackets, she believes, represent the graves awaiting the bodies of poet and 'lovely Boy'.

Definitely not the last words on the Sonnets. But some of the more fascinating, nonetheless.


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