The week in books

February 12, 2009

The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas, fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford. Oxford University Press, £20.00, ISBN 9780199237233

"It would be hard to select a single life-aim from Thomas' account that received the most general approval. It might possibly be married love, which, he says, was widely accepted as a principal source of human fulfilment by the later 17th century. Alternatively, work became the point of life for many. Workaholics existed long before anyone called them that. But choosing a winner would miss the point ... What this fascinating book reveals is how variously and how tenaciously people have felt the need to seek reasons for living."

John Carey, The Sunday Times

The Poetry Toolkit by Rhian Williams, research fellow in the department of English and creative writing, De Montfort University, Continuum, £15.99, ISBN 9781847969495

"Perhaps inspired by a desire for fashionable inclusiveness, Williams presents an alarming amount of old and contemporary doggerel alongside reassuring chunks of Donne, Yeats, Christina Rossetti, et al. The villanelle would surely have been better illustrated with Empson (who is nowhere mentioned) than with a modern pub ditty; and one of the two final exercises in close reading (by Felicia Hemans) is not worth reading closely. One is left musing on the possible implications for what poetry is of the rival metaphors 'toolkit' and 'handbook', as in John Lennard's The Poetry Handbook (OUP), which remains the superior reader's vade mecum."

Steven Poole, The Guardian

A New Science of Life by Rupert Sheldrake, director of the Perrot-Warrick project, University of Cambridge. Icon Books, £9.99, ISBN 9781848310421

"When this book was first published in 1981, John Maddox, the editor of Nature, described it as 'the best candidate for burning there has been for many years'. Sheldrake is unrepentant in this revision. Indeed, he suggests that his theory of 'morphic resonance', whereby 'all animals and plants draw upon and contribute to a collective memory', explains the astonishingly small number of genes discovered in the Human Genome Project ... Akin to sympathetic magic, it's all very odd indeed, but little odder than quantum physics which, according to Sheldrake, provides a 'promising context for morphic fields'."

Christopher Hirst, The Independent

Henry VIII by Lucy Wooding, lecturer in early modern history, King's College London. Routledge, £13.99, ISBN 9789415339957

"Lucy Wooding covers the whole reign, necessarily drawing on others' work, expounding and reviewing it in a way that students will greet with joy. A long afternoon in the company of her book, deftly used, will give them an air of easy familiarity with the great debates of the last few decades. Yet her work is emphatically not an 'A-says-this, B-says-that' crammer. She takes her own line at every point, formulates her judgements in fluent and pointed prose, and illustrates her case with quotations from chronicles, letters and formularies of faith."

Steven Gunn, The Times Literary Supplement.

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