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Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Siri Hustvedt, Patti Smith and 1930s history.

The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt

Rachel Cooke in the Observer celebrates how Siri Hustvedt's account of her "medical mystery" -- sudden convulsions and emotional hypersensitivity -- eschews the "fetid claustrophobia of the misery memoir". Hustvedt remains coolly intellectual in her approach to an illness whose symptoms have been treated with scepticism: "She is, by trade, a storyteller but she knows that narratives, of the kind that Freud so seductively conjured, can mislead. She is open to science but experience tells her some things cannot, yet, be explained by reference only to neurotransmitters and hemispheres."

In the Guardian, Hilary Mantel finds an insight into the craft of writing: "In part this book is an articulation of her inner process as a writer. When a writer is asked, how do you write, the temptation is to ask a question back: what order of explanation do you require? Mechanical? Mystical?"

Melanie McGrath in the Telegraph agrees that the book raises more questions than it answers: "Is the shaking epilepsy? Some neurological bedfellow to her migraines and earlier childhood febrile convulsions?" But McGrath is not wholly impressed: Hustvedt's "tales of medical appointments, lecture tours and vignettes from the past come over, on the one hand, as oddly detached and on the other as mildly irritating".

 

The Thirties: an Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner

"Though Gardiner is too good a historian to draw glib parallels with the present," writes Dominic Sandbrook in the Telegraph, "one of the achievements of this hugely impressive book is to remind us that behind the clichés about dole queues and hunger marches, the Thirties was the decade of the car, cinema and the suburban semi, an age of self-conscious modernity that laid the foundations for postwar affluence."

Sandbrook has reservations about the book's length: "at nearly 1,000 pages, it is very long. Some readers may find the feast rather too gargantuan, especially as she downplays the kind of political narrative that might keep them turning the pages". But he claims that it is "a quite outstanding work of social history".

For Richard Davenport-Hines in the Sunday Times, Gardiner "has mastered a vast number of written sources, and the resulting synthesis is also a work of graceful, eloquent historical imagination". He admires the book's anecdotal intimacy: "The cinematic clarity of Gardiner's descriptions of accidents and ceremonies tells more about the decade than a page of statistics."

Lara Feigel in the Observer, having deemed it "a book too big to read in bed", determines that "this is history as told through a carefully woven web of stories, relayed by a consummate storyteller. Through these small, juxtaposed tales, a wider economic and political history comes into view."

 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The long-awaited memoir of Patti Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe is, for Camilla Long of the Sunday Times, the perfect showcase for Smith's writing, which is "delicate, Gothic, laced with careful poetic references and metaphors . . . At times she is funny . . . At other times, the joke's probably on her."

She sees the book as a way for Smith to honour the luminaries of the day, particularly those who died prematurely: "her deeper theme of young lives needlessly lost, slowly developed through the deaths of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Joplin, is ultimately the most powerful". In the Telegraph, Michael Arditti proclaims it to be a "heartfelt, illuminating book".

"Just Kids" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

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