Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Joseph O’Connor, William Rosen and Matt Ridley.

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Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor

"Joseph O'Connor's re-imagining of the 1907 love affair between the beautiful young Abbey Theatre actress Molly Allgood and the dying Irish playwright John Millington Synge is a spellbinding read", writes Aisling Foster in the Times. "Though the language is Joycean, strands of Synge are woven in."

"There is nothing mawkish about Allgood's story. O'Connor has written her as a tough and witty old bird." Yet the ending disappoints Foster: "After so much mature intelligence the novel's epilogue, featuring young Allgood's naïve letter to her lover, strikes the only duff note of 'Irishry'."

For Hugo Hamilton of the Financial Times, "Ghost Light brings his achievement to a new dimension, more specifically located and yet all the more masterful in its management of re-imagined lives and the times they inhabit." It is, "the breadth of Molly's inner voice", claims Hamilton, "that allows O'Connor to reveal his great fictional insight into their lives."

Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph also praised "a story which melds fact and fiction", promising that regular O'Connor readers would be "delighted".

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention by William Rosen

"Anyone who has ever wondered over Britain's exceptional contribution to the modern world should read William Rosen's book" writes Ian Jack in the Financial Times. "What was peculiar to a smallish island in north-west Europe that turned it into the first industrial nation? Rosen isn't the first writer to attempt an answer, but I can think of no other book that combines so many aspects of the story so clearly and elegantly."

Jack however acknowledges: "This book isn't perfect. No matter how lucid the writing, even simple inventions are difficult to grasp without diagrams; and sometimes, abashed at his own seriousness, the writer introduces an aw-shucks note to his text."

Robin McKie in the Guardian terms the book "An intriguing, witty account of the birth of steam power", praising the author's eagerness to debunk "those stories of the great inventor's childhood fascination with steam pushing aside kettle lids."

For James McConnachie in the Times, Rosen's "infectiously enthusiastic, all-encompassing investigation" offers "a particularly fascinating account of the tangled relationship between iron, coal and steam."

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

In his "selective economic history of the human race" Matt Ridley "throws down the gauntlet to contemporary pessimists", writes Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times. Asking why, "of all the hominids whose remains have been discovered homo sapiens alone emerged triumphant?", Ridley has produced a work which "could be regarded as a marriage of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin.", and has done so "without equations and a minimum of jargon."For Brittan Ridley's one weakness is his failure to "put enough emphasis on future economic growth taking a less materialist form."

Fred Pearce in the Independent was more emphatic: "Ridley's view is often blinkered. His grand historical sweep revels in the success of past civilisations, but their demise is glossed over in a sentence."

"When optimists like Ridley end up telling us all is well as we hurtle towards the cliff, then they are the enemies of the future. And they are certainly not being rational."

Robert Colvile in the Telegraph acknowledges both Ridley's "challenging and ambitious" premise and his "vastly provocative arguments", concluding that: 'Although I broadly agree with Ridley's thesis, his dismissal of the role of the state lacks nuance. This book shows that the free market is a wonderful idea. So wonderful, it should easily cope with the damage inflicted upon it by Ridley."


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