Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Blake Morrison, Christos Tsiolkas and Laura Bush.

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

"Morrison has created far more than a sinister take on the country-house novel," writes Christian House in the Independent on Sunday. "All his signature themes are present: the intricate complications of family life, the psychological mechanics of crime, the crassness of class boundaries and, most of all, the hypocrisies of modern masculinity. This is a suspenseful thriller," House declares, "but more importantly it succeeds as an exceedingly clever investigation into the strangeness of lies."

For John O'Connell, writing in the Times, "Ian [the narrator] is an authentic, copper-bottomed monster. But Morrison is too subtle a writer to leave it at that. The most fascinating aspect of The Last Weekend is its suggestion that Ian's bitterness and paranoia are explicable, if not justified."

In the Telegraph, David Robson opines that "the plot is touch artificial . . . [revolving] around a silly bet struck 20 years before. But the human basis for the story has the ring of truth. Meanwhile, the Guardian's Stephanie Merritt writes that "Morrison handles the elements of his novel with impeccable control", creating "the slow-burning feeling that nothing is as it should be".

 

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Stephen Amidon writes for the Times: "The destructive gesture that sets in motion Christos Tsiolkas's powerful new novel [first published in Australia in 2008 and winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize] is an open hand briskly applied to the face of a spoilt three-year-old . . . The reverberations of the incident soon affect the lives of at least a dozen people."

"Tsiolkas uses his premise as a guy-line to stabilise his larger structure," writes Jane Smiley for the Guardian, "but his real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters, four women and four men, ranging in age from 18 to 70. And each of these characters is a sharp observer of those around him or her, so many more lives are illuminated as well."

For Doug Johnstone, writing in the Independent, Tsiolkas's international success "is deserved . . . because this ingenious and passionate book is a wonderful dissection of suburban Australian living, tackling issues of race, class and gender, but doing so with a keen eye on the personal".

"Perhaps inevitably," claims Johnstone, "not all the narrative [voices] work quite as well -- the two teenagers seem a little clichéd, while Rosie's story fails to explain her almost pathologically cloying attitude toward Hugo." Even so, for him, "This is a beautifully structured and executed examination of the complexity of modern living."

 

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush

"Bush's account of her life before and after George W is cautious, pleasantly soporific, sweetly uncontroversial and untroubled by self-doubt," writes Elaine Showalter in the Telegraph. Painting a picture of a woman who is "pretty, motherly, modestly dressed [and] conscientious about her duties", the memoir, in Showalter's view, demonstrates "[Bush's] knack for seizing the inoffensive feminine middle ground". A "calculated and highly controlled autobiography", she concludes, the book is (in spite of its title) "written from the head".

For Sarah Baxter in the Times, although Mrs Bush evinces "a sly way of getting her own back on her detractors" and "can be a gossip at times too" -- offering a revealing insight into Prince Charles and Camilla's drinking habits, for instance -- when it comes to her husband she "confines herself to loyal expressions of confidence".

"The worst parts of her book cover her years in the White House," Baxter elaborates. "Ever in her husband's shadow, she has . . . nothing of interest to say about an era that began with 9/11, led to two wars, and ended with the election of the first African-American president."

The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr agrees that "the higher George Bush rises politically, the less interesting the book becomes", but writes, "[Laura Bush] is not simply a two-dimensional Republican version of a surrendered wife, and Spoken from the Heart is not simply a rousing appreciation of life by George's side." Rather, "what comes through is . . . that Laura Bush is a far more complex, interesting character than perhaps anyone had cause to guess".

"Spoken from the Heart" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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