Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Philip Ball, Sebastian Faulks and Francesca Beauman.

Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball

In this week's New Statesman, John Gray enjoys Philip Ball's "light and graceful prose", which provides an "absorbing" cultural history of "anthropoeia" -- the project of artificially creating human life. Ultimately though, Gray finds the book's argument "self-defeating" as he attempts to "demythologise our thinking about humankind's place in the scheme of things", replacing one metaphysical myth with another.

Writing in the Guardian, Manjit Kumar praises Ball as a "skilled practitioner of the book-length essay", who can also be "wonderfully succinct". Ball's "thoughtful" book presents the reader with a "fascinating and impressive cultural history of anthropoeia".

Jim Endersby in the Telegraph concludes that the book is both "beautifully written" and "deeply intelligent", tracing a complex subject matter with "exemplary care and clarity."

Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson discusses Sebastian Faulks's examination of literary theory in relation to the novel, which accompanies a new BBC series. Seeking to "kill off" the modern practice of biographical criticism, Faulks falters and merely offers much "bloggish rambling", disastrously mixing "shot-in-the-dark literary history" with "unsubstantiated" critical assertions, so that "the most frequent sight in the book is of an author out of his depth" in this "spirited, if not exactly eloquent" work.

According to Katy Guest in the Independent, the book "works well as a history of the novel and its uneasy relationship with society", but Faulks's attempts to "diagnose characters" are misguided. When Faulks gives a "robust and lengthy legal defence" of Alec d'Urberville against a rape conviction, Guest doubts whether this constitutes a "useful form of literary criticism".

Writing in the Financial Times, John Sutherland finds that, though "Faulks's easy-goingness is one of his book's charms", the unfortunate inclusion of "unnecessary blemishes", "too many bloopers" and authorial "looseness" disfigure it. Drawing attention to a glaring mistake about plot detail made by Faulks in his discussion of Austen's Emma, Sutherland declares that "any A-level candidate committing this kind of elementary error could kiss goodbye to Oxbridge". Nevertheless, he concedes that it remains "readable, entertaining and well conceived".

Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: a History of the Lonely Hearts Ad 1695-2010 by Francesca Beauman

Francesca Beauman's history of matrimonial advertisements fails to live up to its promise, writes Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer. Most enjoyable are the "quirky snippets" from 18th-century pamphlets, some of which show that "the list of desires and requests was dominated by financial rather than romantic considerations". An example from 1759 demonstrates an "extreme" mercenary motive: "A young man wants a wife with two or three hundred pounds; or the money will do without the wife." (Cadwalladr notes that this gambit worked and "he got the money"). However, as Beauman examines the ad in contemporary times, an unsatisfactory "glibness" prevails and the "narrative is patched together."

Contrarily, Melissa Katsoulis in the Telegraph discovers a "perfect little history" of the "surprisingly long story" of the lonely hearts ad, a "lively account" full of "fascinating" detail. Katsoulis notes, however, that as Beauman approaches the present day, she is reluctant to "delve into the twilight world of adult contact mags that many readers would find of considerable academic value, especially if accompanied by illustrations".

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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.