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".