The week in books

February 21, 2008

How Fiction Works by James Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism, Harvard University. Cape, £12.99, ISBN 9780224079839

"Wood's roots are deep in English religious non-conformity. He opens this book with a comment which, in others, would look like dandyism: 'I can say that I have used only the books I actually own - the books at hand in my study.' One should recall not Proust in his cork-lined room, but Bunyan in his cell, with only the Geneva Bible to read."

John Sutherland, Financial Times

Power and Identity in the Middle Ages: Essays in Memory of Rees Davies, edited by Huw Pryce, professor in medieval history, Bangor University, and John Watts, lecturer in modern history, University of Oxford. Oxford University Press, £55.00, ISBN 9780199285464

"This is historical scholarship at its best. Nonetheless, even the most spectacular of firework displays have their occasional dud rocket ... Solipsism is perhaps the greatest potential failing of the professional historian, and in this instance there are two essays (politeness forbids one to name them) which exhibit all the coherence of a madman in a telephone box, scoring rhetorical points off a listener who long ago had the sense to replace the handset."

Nicholas Vincent, Times Literary Supplement

Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-1941 by Ian Kershaw, professor of modern German history, University of Sheffield. Penguin, £9.99, ISBN 9780141014180

"History tends to make decisions seem inevitable, part of an ineluctable process with no alternatives, but the great value of Fateful Choices is the way it delineates the thought processes involved and shows they were far from inevitable."

Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times

The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of Christendom by Jonathan Phillips, reader in medieval history, Royal Holloway, University of London. Yale University Press, £25.00, ISBN 97803001140

"Phillips has already written a very good book on the Fourth (and most disreputable) Crusade. Now he has followed up with an absorbing and scholarly account of one of its predecessors. Some readers, made dizzy by the detail, may find it too scholarly. They should press on, skipping passages rather than letting themselves be bogged down. They will find the journey rewarding."

Alan Massie, The Sunday Telegraph

Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician by John Worthen, emeritus professor of English, University of Nottingham. Yale University Press, £25.00, ISBN 9780300111606

"The black cloud at the end of Schumann's life has been seen as overshadowing everything on the way, but John Worthen's biography refuses idle teleology ... Paying fierce attention to original sources, among them Schumann's autopsy report ... and domestic diaries that he kept jointly with his pianist wife, Clara, he shows that Schumann's problems can be explained without a theory of inherited madness. What Schumann faced was the purely physical nemesis of syphilis."

Paul Driver, London Review of Books

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