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Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Chinua Achebe, Alastair Campbell and the science of music.

The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe

John Sutherland in the Times expresses some reservations about Chinua Achebe's collection of essays, stating that of late he has produced "too many lectures and not enough novels . . . one would give the whole 172 pages of The Education of a British-Protected Child for the first paragraph of Things Fall Apart".

Helon Habila in the Guardian is more impressed: "It is a mark of Achebe's genius as a narrator that one could hear him many times on the same subject and never grow bored -- a reminder that in the art of the storyteller, it is not content alone that matters, it is also the performance, the presentation and the passion."

Jonathan Bate in the Telegraph suggests that what was promised is not delivered: "the blurb on the dust jacket reveals that it is really a 'volume of autobiographical essays, many of which have never been published before'. These are weasel words on the part of the publisher. Most of the pieces are not essays. They are lectures and addresses, often rambling, unstructured, tailored to particular occasions."


Maya by Alastair Campbell

"The basic plot is borrowed from Othello . . . and the tone and prose style from the novels of Tony Parsons." That is how Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, sums up Alastair Campbell's second novel. "Although it will pain large numbers of people to hear this, Campbell has written a book which is well plotted and suspenseful. Few who can bring themselves to start will be able to force themselves not to finish."

Others were less keen. "The problem with Campbell's novel," writes Joan Smith in the Sunday Times, "is that it has few likeable characters." She warns: "If you've set out to write an excoriating exposé of celebrity culture, maybe it's not such a smart idea to have a gushing endorsement from Piers Morgan on the cover."

Anthony Horowitz in the Telegraph is succinct and brutal: "If you were to sum up this grim, rather bitter book in one sentence, it would be this. He who lives by the media, dies by the media (and then comes back to life . . . and then quite possibly dies again)."


The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It by Philip Ball

Bee Wilson in the Sunday Times cannot praise this book highly enough: "Ball, a keen musician himself who has a PhD in physics . . . covers everything from tonality and scales to the question of whether music can be a language. I defy anyone to read this book without coming away better informed about why music affects us in such a profound way."

Wilson admires his sensitivity as a writer: "Ball never presumes that music can be reduced to some kind of scientific formula . . . His passion for music is evident on every page, and his enthusiasms (whether for gamelan or Glenn Gould) are infectious."

Steven Poole in the Guardian is slightly more qualifying in his analysis, describing it as a "flawed but fascinating work". He concludes: "It will be the rare music-lover who does not come away without having learned many interesting things; but aesthetics cannot be replaced wholesale by bean-counting analysis."


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