Book reviews: Rembrandt and the Passion | Dog Days | Voicing Scotland

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The pride of Glasgow’s Hunterian, Rembrandt’s Entombment Sketch is a work of extraordinary power. A “sketch” it may be, but this oil-on-panel painting thrills the heart and stirs the soul. “Serene and contemplative”, in Black’s description, the sketch fits well with the less-is-more aesthetic of a Protestant Passion, restrained and prayerful.

Rembrandt and the Passion

by Peter Black with Erma Hermens

(Prestel, £24.99) * * * *

It certainly contrasts starkly with the works of shock-and-awe created by the artists of the Catholic Counter-Reformation further south. Peter Black’s commentary illuminates the composition of a classic work, its place in Rembrandt’s oeuvre and in its age. Erma Hermens homes in still more closely on the sketch itself: her “technical investigation” is the next best thing to actually looking over the artist’s shoulder as he paints.

Dog Days

by Elspeth Barker

(Black Dog, £11.99) * * *

“So many incidents, lives, deaths …” Here she’s talking about “Hens I Have Known”, but as any reader of her novel O Caledonia knows, Elspeth Barker has her own idiosyncratic way with the stuff of human existence too. The autobiographical fragments collected here crackle with quirkiness and fizz with unruly life; unfortunately, the same can’t really be said for the brief book reviews which make up so much of this “Selected Writings”. (Even an enticing-looking “Literary Lives” section turns out to comprise Barker’s reviews of other people’s literary biographies.) Not that they’re ever anything less than elegant and insightful: the trouble is that Barker sticks so conscientiously to her last. It seems churlish to complain about a critic who never thinks her reviews are about her. The result, though, is that, time- and context-specific as these pieces are, they’re fairly limited in what they give the general reader.

Voicing Scotland

by Gary West

(Luath, £12.99) * * * *

“Folk is cool,” says the Pipeline host – a little optimistically, some might feel. He’s surely right, though, that – so far, and here in Scotland – it’s been weathering the 21st century surprisingly well. If the toora-loora revolution never quite came, the insurrectionary impulse has nevertheless endured: neither Thatcherism nor New Labour could quench the spirit Hamish Henderson characterised as “Gramsci in action”. Meanwhile, Marcuse’s mass culture, rather than overwhelming folk, met it halfway in the Scottish “popular” mainstream as performers like Paolo Nutini and the Proclaimers set the democratic intellect to music. Can folk stay true to tradition and still be genuinely contemporary? Can its pride in place counter globalisation – without it collapsing into narrow nationalism? The answer, for Gary West, is a resounding Yes.