Burying the Bones by Hilary Spurling, The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman and Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

“It is a terrific story, told with rare intelligence and refinement,” wrote George Walden in the Mail on Sunday, about Burying the Bones, by Hilary Spurling, a “superb biography of the most famous voice on China of her day, the American novelist Pearl Buck . . . We are fortunate that Spurling, the prize-winning biographer of Matisse among others, has turned her attention eastwards. If only China specialists wrote so well.” According to Elaine Showalter in the Literary Review, Buck “has no place in feminist mythology, and her novels have been effectively eliminated from the American literary map. Boldly conceived and magnificently written, Burying the Bones should repair Buck’s literary fortunes and restore her to the pantheon of feminist heroines”. For Victoria Glendinning in the Spectator, Buck’s “most famous novel, The Good Earth, has never been out of print and has sold millions” yet “her writing has generally been ignored by the literati. When she won the Nobel prize for literature, they laughed . . . She remains, like the people she wrote about, inscrutable.’

In the Mail on Sunday, Craig Brown argued that Philip Pullman’s fictional retelling of the Gospels, The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ “is much less original than its publishers suggest . . . In my entire life, I honestly can’t remember a single teacher or priest who didn’t readily – much too readily, for my childish imagination – go along with Pullman’s idea of explaining away the miracles of Jesus simply setting a good example”. For Boyd Tonkin in the Independent the novel is “a striking and suggestive work – far more so than another ‘protestant’ bid to rescue a rule-free ‘Jesus movement’ from the evil hierarchy of ‘church'”. But on being driven back by it to “the relevant scripture”, he decided “Pullman can’t really compete. Who on earth could? But bless him (by whatever lights you choose) for such a provokingly bold attempt.” “We all know that Pullman’s ‘Christ’ is an invented character,” wrote AN Wilson in the Literary Review: “Remove him, and you are left with the puzzle . . . The Gospel according to Pullman, precisely because it is so skilfully constructed, will prompt many readers to turn once more to consider whether or not they should accept the apparently bizarre testimony of the early Christian witnesses, testimony which they repeatedly insisted was not simply a ‘story’ but was based on factual experience.”

Christopher Silvester in the Daily Telegraph described Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land as a “lively treatise . . . rueful and wise rather than polemical”, in which Judt “seeks to reclaim the legacy of social democracy as a respectable political philosophy for our times . . . you should read [it] for its mostly temperate moral passion, its sinewy analysis and its supple prose, as clear and refreshing as a mountain stream”. Dominic Sandbrook in the Sunday Times also praised it as an “elegant, courageous and deeply humane book”, but contended that Judt’s “social democratic vision includes a strong dose of wishful thinking. Globalisation, he proposes hopefully, may not be here to stay. But what if it is? Perhaps the best way to think of this book, then, is as the beginning of a conversation rather than the last word”. For Julian Baggini in the Financial Times, “several of Judt’s paragraphs read as though they were better-written versions of old Tony Blair speeches”; his sweep is “the book’s strength and weakness . . . Judt’s impassioned, often angry polemic is . . . sorely needed, but much more sober, practical thinking is needed too, if the land is to fare better”.

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