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review 2014-03-28 11:22
Gardening the drama
Shakespeare's Britain - Jonathan Bate,Dora Thornton,Becky Allen

Shakespeare is said to have been a keen gardener

When I visited the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World with my family, we all felt the same thing; a sad gap in our knowledge had been filled with rich and fruitful learning! I have always enjoyed Shakespeare thanks to great teaching when I studied, great productions when I went to the theatre, the great Baz Luhrman version of Romeo & Juliet, and contagious parental enthusiasm, but I definitely enjoy him more having seen the evocative collection of objects and information brought together by that exhibition, the catalogue of which is reviewed here by Kalliope. This is a small selection from that experience...

Appreciating the cultural environment that Shakespeare's works came out feels to me like more than an added dimension - it's as if I've been given a new faculty of sense, as if I smell or taste something I'd only imagined before. The ambience of the time, the imagined forest of Arden, the thrilling mythology of witchcraft and fascination with colonial travellers' tales from the 'New World' are called up by all sorts of works of art and artefacts, carefully and accessibly interpreted. The political significance in their time of Shakespeare's historical dramas such as Julius Caesar is explored. There is some interesting material on James I and unification with Scotland, which relates to the optimistic late play Cymbeline.

Deliciously produced, this little book is just the pre-theatre dish to whet the appetite and season a serving of the bard

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review 2014-03-04 09:03
Women do
The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer

Greer cuts through our absurdly patriarchal fantasies of romantic love, diagnosing the misery and anxiety they cause, and draws a picture of the female stereotype as castrated - a a passive receptacle for male sexuality. She also implicates capitalism in shaping and reinforcing patriarchy, with some great passages on the history of women in work.

There was far less visibility of trans issues and trans people when this was written and Greer's discussion of the female body in this book certainly has some dated aspects, but that doesn't stop it from being an important work in the history of feminism. It's also highly readable, non-technical and funny.

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review 2014-03-02 16:02
Life as period costume
The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt

A densely woven account of connected families growing and changing over the late Victorian period up until the end of WWI. Byatt centres her narrative on the lives of the children, following their development and emotional perspectives. The book is openly aestheticising at the expense of pure realism, aiming for the elegant, stylised naturalism of art nouveau that supplies so much of the historical detail. I deeply enjoyed the tale and the telling, particularly Philip's story, which resists high drama apart from the uncomfortable child abuse subplot.

Elsie, the working class girl, is a challenge for Byatt, an unusual character whose story feels underwritten, but at least she defies stereotypes & romanticisation by being frankly interested in sex and smart clothes. The suffrage movement and the war receive intelligent attention. The most satisfying sections are about Anselm Stern, the genius puppeteer, and his sons. Artistry is the theme with which Byatt deals most effectively, illuminating the reality of hard, prolonged work of creation by personalities so well drawn they feel like friends.

Byatt has a way of appreciatively writing about clothes which I love and find inspiring: she imbues them with sensual pleasure, artfulness and delight, and always uses them to create ambiance and develop character.

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review 2014-01-28 07:31
Flowing to freedom
A Grain of Wheat - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

A Grain of Wheat centres a political narrative about the struggle for independence and liberation in Kenya; about rebellion against British imperialism, and on this level it is searing, laying bare the injustice from the point of view of a richly varied cast of rural Kenyan people. Ngugi draws on Conrad to nuance the idealistic, but cold and inhuman character of the white DO, Thompson. He gives space to the character of each of the people in the village, revealing their motives in all their ambiguity and mystery.

The book shifts its tone from the magnified detail of the psychological novel to the broader framing of folk-anecdote and the rhythmic transmission of oral tradition, addressing the reader as an unidentified 'I', encompassing the village and sinking, a polymorphous identity, into the crowd. This innovative fluidity is refreshing to my spirit and allows an unusually rich and multifaceted emotional resonance to build. Often phlegmatic, the narrative gathers force and power as it patiently traces each person's tributary of recall to the communal estuary.

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review 2014-01-10 20:56
Youthful outrage
Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

Orwell's first published work, giving a slightly fictionalised account of his experiences of poverty in Paris and London.

His time in London is made into an extraordinary and vital social document, preserving and bearing witness to the painful and shocking history of the tramps. I never realised that these men and women were so called because they were forced by the law that prevented them from staying in one place for more than one night to walk from town to town every day, with the reward of a meagre meal of buttered bread and tea and a comfortless dorm if they were lucky. Orwell derides this senseless expenditure of effort, suggesting work that tramps could do instead.

The young man's horror at the waste, boredom and uselessness of poverty is captivatingly illustrated by this tense, sparely written account of his struggles for food and shelter in two of the great cities of the world, celebrated elsewhere for their cultural wealth, beauty, style and romantic ambience. I was astonished by the weird, inhuman travails to which the poor of both cities were put, and by the extremities of filth and degradation that so disgusted Orwell.

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