Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Melvyn Bragg, Edward St Aubyn and Arthur Phillips.

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg's ode to the King James Bible, on its 400th anniversary, is "elegant, accessible and passionately argued" writes Peter Stanford in The Independent. The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible "tells the history of the King James with the vigour and pace of a storyteller rather than the dry precision of an academic," he writes. Stanford urges even the "most militant non-believers" to read this book, though notes "Bragg devotes a chapter to a devastating attack on Richard Dawkins".

Writing in the FT, John Cornwell suggests that of the many scholars who have celebrated the Bible's birthday with a book "it is left to Melvyn Bragg to claim far-reaching social and political consequences from the KJB in an unabashedly Whiggish class of his own". Though Bragg attributes much British "social and political beneficence" to the influence of the King James, Cornwell imagines he "may not convince all his readers". But for the reviewer's part he is "inclined to accept [Bragg's] final word: that the KJB's impact 'has been immeasurable and it's not over yet'".

At Last by Edward St Aubyn

At Last is the final installment of Edward St Aubyn's sequence on the life of Patrick Melrose: a protagonist who, born to a wealthy family "tettering on the edge of immense wealth... has spent most of his time dealing with the fallout". "A novel of exquisite observation which conveys a movement towards peace" writes Phillip Womack for The Telegraph. "We have reached the pinnacle of a series that has plunged into darkness and risen towards light." Womack applauds St Aubyn's novels for being "uncommonly well controlled", noting as a result "their impact is all for the more powerful". Leyla Sanai for The Independent remarks "St Aubyn is still deliciously wicked in his satire". "The blend of acid wit, intellect and compassion" for which St Aubyn is famed is "plaited through At Last", she writes. It is a novel which alone "enthralls... but in sequence their power is synergistic".

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Stephen Greenblatt for The New York Times declares Arthur Phillips's faux-Shakespearian tale a "splendidly devious novel". Constructed around a five-act play "entitled 'The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare'... we are dealing not with parody but with something else: fraud. This is a full length fake. It is a surprisingly good fake, too". Greenblatt praises both Phillips's "fictional memoir" which serves as the introduction, and the "forged play" itself which "leaves the reader not with resentment at having been tricked but rather with gratitude for the gift of feigned wonder".

David L Ulin, writing for the LA Times, confesses though he's "not much of a Shakespearean, [he'd] say Phillips pulls it off". For Ulin the question of whether the Shakespeare is authentic is "almost entirely beside the point. What's essential, rather, is the saga that surrounds it, a family drama involving (yes) Arthur Phillips, who both is and isn't the author of this book".

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Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date

The more mainstream Beyoncé becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Beyoncé has long been associated with empowerment. From her Destiny’s Child days to B’Day to 2013’s self-titled album, instructions for empowerment are everywhere. Make your own money, and don’t let any man take it from you. You are beautiful, and you should feel empowered by your beauty. You can be successful on your own, but a relationship can be empowering, too. Your existence is powerful, in all its forms.

Beyoncé has always sung primarily to an audience that is black and female, which is essentially what transports so many of these songs from generically feel-good to genuinely radical, even if this difference is often elided on the dancefloor.

As a black woman making art for other black women, Beyoncé has often functioned as a cultural linchpin for movements of gender and racial equality before she has explicitly attached herself to them: “Beyoncé” and “feminism” were used in the same sentence long before she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or stood in front of a giant neon sign blazing “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs. And she and her husband Jay-Z were entwined with #BlackLivesMatter before she included graffiti reading “STOP SHOOTING US” in one of her music videos.

But Beyoncé has continually surprised audiences with her readiness to engage explicitly with these complex issues in more experimental forms as her impossible success continues to snowball: in a kind of inversion on the traditional narrative of white male punk musicians selling out, the more mainstream she becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Formation, her newest single, which dropped on Saturday, takes Beyoncé into territory that feels simultaneously familiar and untrodden. It’s a trap-influenced, synthy track brimming with distinctive reminders of her black Southern upbringing and her phenomenal success. Lyrics about black self-love, the pulsing undercurrent of Beyoncé’s entire career, take on new significance in how explicit and familial they are: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Financial gain as a challenge to oppression – an implication of so many of her songs – finds new, more direct, expression: your “best revenge is your paper”. All these words take on greater significance dressed as they are in such potent visual imagery: Beyoncé stands on top of a drowning police car in New Orleans and fans herself in period clothing in a pregnant, ghostly house reminiscent of Beloved’s 124. Without a doubt, this is Beyoncé‘s most radical release.

It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé makes links between music and political change in her music itself, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because music has personally empowered Beyoncé to have a kind of cultural and financial success that most people (of any race) could only ever dream of, allowing her to challenge cultural norms in becoming a symbol of independence, sex appeal, authenticity, achievement, blackness and femininity, within a racist society that often sees those traits as incongruous. (This is made explicit in the lyric, “You just might be a black Bill Gates”: world-changing levels of success are still seen as white and male.)

Metaphorically, because Beyoncé‘s music has united black female bodies in organised movement for years (think the Single Ladies” dance). She plays with this in Formation: the line “Get in formation” is an instruction for empowerment. With its punning echo of “get information”, it calls on you to get ready to dance, and to resist. As Dr Zandria F. Robinson notes, it is “a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance, [...] formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement”.

The moment of pause is particularly significant because it is so often dangerous – something that the video for Formation” illustrates in its shots of a young black boy dancing, then opening his arms outstretched, in front of white riot police. They pause before raising their own hands. The poet Claudia Rankine once told me that these silent moments are important because of their potential danger: the calm before the storm. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds [...] is all of white supremacist history building up. You [can] end up on the other side of that with a dead body.”

Beyoncé has used her own moment of suspense productively – fans and critics noted her “deafening silence” on racial equality, asking where her Instagram essay or impassioned tweets were when her audience needed them. Instead, she took the time to craft a thoughtful, nuanced, forceful anthem made by and for black women that will doubtlessly be consumed by audiences indiscriminately around the world (and Jay-Zs streaming service Tidal simultaneously donated $1.5m to #BlackLivesMatter).

A woman often criticised for her enthusiastic engagement with capitalism (like Rihanna, whose “prosperity gospel” is beautifully explained here by Doreen St Felix), Beyoncé has, in characteristic style, used Formation to demonstrate how the master’s tools can sometimes be used to dismantle the master’s house from the inside. As Britt Julious writes, “As long as we live in this world with these systems, the best manner of disrupting, of surviving, of taking what’s yours is using the same methods they might have used on you. Beyoncé knows what she’s doing. Who else could bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl?

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