Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen Greenblatt, Charlie Campbell and Michael Ondaatje.

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The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst describes Lucretius's 2,000-year-old De rerum natura ('On the Nature of Things') as "one of the most subversive poems ever written." In the Guardian, Charles Nicholl writes that the "poem is powerfully ranged against spiritual and supernatural beliefs. It posits a solely material world in which everything is composed of minute particles."

Douglas-Fairhurst notes that Stephen Greenblatt's book on Lucretius The Swerve is a "superbly readable piece of historical detective work" concerning "the sudden reappearance of Lucretius's poem after centuries spent lying undisturbed in a German monastery. The hero of this act of cultural salvage was Poggio Bracciolini, and much of Greenblatt's book is devoted to bringing him out of the wings of history."

Nicholl praises the book: "Highly skilled, close-focus readings of moments of great cultural significance are Stephen Greenblatt's speciality ... This is a superb essay on the transmission of ideas, but it is also a kind of eulogy to the power and tenacity of manuscripts." For Douglas-Fairhurst, it "is an exciting story, and Greenblatt tells it with his customary clarity and verve ... Treating a single civil servant [Poggio] as the pivot on which Western culture turned... is based more on wishful thinking than fact".

Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People by Charlie Campbell

In the Observer's review, Christopher Bray describes the book as a "sweeping history of the blame game ... starting with Adam's dissing of Eve, Campbell proceeds to take down everyone from Marx ... to Freud ... from Larkin ... to Dawkins ... It is women, though, to whom Campbell devotes most attention."

Frances Wilson, writing in the Telegraph, finds that "This is a book with a noble goal: 'to make people think more about the issue of blame and responsibility'. Nothing, Campbell argues, reveals human stupidity more than the refusal to accept the consequences of our actions." Bray notes that "Far from wanting you to scapegoat those who have hunted and killed their own scapegoats, he wants you to admit to your own instinctive need for presuming superiority over everyone who is not you."

Wilson highly praises Scapegoat as "a relevant and timely subject and Charlie Campbell is terrifically good company. It's not often that I wish a book were longer, but this one could happily be twice the length. I blame the editor."

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje's latest novel is about "an 11-year-old boy called Michael travelling on a steamship from Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) to England in 1954", writes Ángel Gurría-Quintana in the FT. He praises the way in which "the child's fresh-eyed astonishment at the new worlds unfolding around him is tempered by the older Michael's melancholy." The child's perspective "requires the stripping of some of the layers of poetic observation that have characterised ... [Ondaatje's] earlier works. Yet The Cat's Table is no less thrilling in its attempts to capture beauty in its various and terrifying forms."

Catherine Lockerbie, in the Scotsman, also praises the novel. The reader should "ready yourself for a buoyant, spellbinding tale of boyhood ... It is a treasure chest of escapades from a pitch-perfect writer... All his tropes are there: his fascination with tricksters, gamblers, dapper thieves ... the sheer skill and arcane knowledge of sappers and engineers. As often, he veers into sudden and magical back stories."

In the Independent, Roma Tearne finds fault with the character of Niemeyer: "As the shackled prisoner, so necessary for the plot, he remains two-dimensional, with neither his presence, nor the working-out of his fate, really quite believable ... [however] this is a quibble in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted whole."