Mstation Book Reviews
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Mon, 01 Sep 2008

Ninachka: the making of an Englishwoman

Nina Murray ed. Jay Underwood, Ninachka: the making of an Englishwoman?, Hamilton Books

As the writer, Princess Shcheyteenin, is my Godmother, and is also 95 years old, I'm not very likely to be critical in my summary of this work which starts with pre-revolutionary Russia, and then moves on to England, where most of the rest of the story occurs including the days of WWII.

It is quite a gruelling journey as well: deprivation, reduced circumstances, murder, and unexpected deaths pepper the story at regular intervals. But, as well as this, it is inspirational in that the writer became a doctor and an eye surgeon and a well-respected member of the communities she lived in - that this was done at all, let alone with a background of some personal tragedy, was quite a feat of human endurance.

Personal histories tend to flesh out our knowledge of times past in a deeply interesting way and here we have knowledge of the flight of the Russian aristocracy and of their assimilation into other countries as well as some experience of WWII in England at a very human level of personal relationships and movement. (Baron K)

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Corbijn's U2

Anton Corbijn, U2 and I:
The photographs 1982 - 2004,

U2 fans will love this: 400ish pages of Corbijn photos and commentary taking in the heyday of U2's fame and popularity. It's also a quite apt thing as Corbijn's photos, particularly the b&w ones, were really central to U2's image - a sort of arty edginess that most definitely extended what they did on stage.

Corbijn's commentary, in the form of handwritten notes, is pleasantly done and U2 trainspotters get a nice fat helping of information about various doings of the band both in connection with the photos and generally.

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Bryson's Shakespeare

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare, Harper Press

Notwithstanding those who dislike Shakespeare, which included the likes of Bernard Shaw, here is a book to revel in if you have any interest whatsoever in the man, the place, or the time. Bryson brings his humour and his research capabilities to bear on what is actually quite a difficult subject. It's difficult because, other than his plays and poetry he didn't leave much of a trail.

Bryson takes us back in time and tells us what is generally known and deals with various arguments about what happened along the way. What we get is a fascinating picture of Elizabethan and Jacobean life in addition to details of what we know about W. Shakespeare.

There are many puzzles along the way and Mstation would like to put in a suggestion about one of them ... One controversial aspect of Shakespeare's writing concerns his sonnets. These beautiful love poems, which Shakespeare apparently hadn't intended to have published, were directed at a fellow male. Consternation! The Victorian English came up with various ways of explaining this ... which included saying that he was practising different voices and points of view, as he regularly did later when writing parts for both male and female. The general consensus these days is that this was not so and they were indeed directed towards a male. The next question is, who was this person? Prime candidate is the Earl of Southampton who apparently was both pretty and effeminate and with whom Shakespeare had some dealings. There have been many objections to this based on the vexing question of class dealings and also having reference to the things said by Shakespeare in his dedications ... which were in the nature of a plea for patronage and, while extremely pleasant, hardly suggest more.

Another tack might be to look at the theatre itself: In those times, the parts of women were played by boys - not tiny little boys mind you, but boys enough that their voices hadn't broken. Another puzzle of Shakepeare's plays was that so many, maybe most, of the really great speeches were for women. This is completely unexpected as one would have thought that these long and complicated parts would have been reserved for the older males. Shakespeare must have had rather special beliefs and feelings about the actor or actors to whom he entrusted these roles. Unfortunately we know next to nothing about who these boys were and what became of them. We don't even know who played these roles at that time. In any case, one of these boys seems a rather likely subject of the sonnets. We should also say that academic opinion leans towards the idea that his love as stated in the sonnets was never consumated.

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