Books for Christmas 2017
For most people, the winter break is a time for Christmas movies, overeating and long walks in the countryside. But many others will spend their December curled in one place with their nose in a book, mapping out their time off in pages and chapters instead of gifts and get togethers.
It’s for these people that we asked some our leading researchers to give their recommendations for winter reading. So if you’re after something to educate, inspire or otherwise capture your imagination then look no further
Islam is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University and a 2017 New Generation thinker. His research looks at how people read literature and focuses on how early modern English literature is read outside the English-speaking world, specifically in the Middle East.
The Secret Life: Three True Stories, Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 2017)
In a world of accessible information in which social media allows (and encourages) the construction of self-fashioned personalities, The Secret Life questions the ever blurring lines between the real and the fake. We have “both too much self and not enough”. In the first and third essays, O’Hagan reflects on how two pitifully insecure men for whom he was asked to ghost-write – Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and possible bitcoin inventor Craig Wright – both inhabit a dangerous self-created reality.
The middle essay is about Ronald Pinn, a deceased child whom O’Hagan brings back to life with the help of social media. It proves eerily easy. With limitless people manipulating their online personas, carefully selecting their mannerisms and filtering their images to develop an alternative reality, the most haunting revelation is that Pinn is in some ways just as real (and fake) as many of us.
Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring, Bassem Youssef (HarperCollins, 2017)
Bassem Youssef transformed modern satire in the Middle East by presenting what would become the most watched TV show in the region’s history. But in the process, the “Arab Jon Stewart” upset two different regimes. Written in US exile, Revolution for Dummies documents Youssef’s story from surgeon, to filming in his laundry room, to becoming one of the world’s most influential people (with viewing figures around fifty times higher than Stewart’s and selection in the Time100 list).
Behind the jibes, Youssef presents some candid, liberal views, overlooked both in sensationalised reporting and binary narratives of the Arab Spring. He explains how comedy and censorship undermined “baseless authority” and makes the important observation that despite how the uprisings have turned out, the process of change is underway since “questioning in itself is a prequel to a revolution”.
Simon Beard is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University and a 2017 New Generation Thinker. His research explores the ethical challenge of ensuring the long-term future of humanity and he has written on topics including population ethics, disability rights, assisted dying, imprisoned mothers, equal marriage, global justice and the meaning of life.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (Pan Books, 1979)
I try to find time to re-read this or re-listen to the radio series - or both if I somehow have the time. It's not just that it manages to still make me laugh even though I virtually know it backwards now (although it does). But that every reading seems to draw my attention to some new little observations or thought experiments that Adams manages to effortlessly weave into his narrative of the perfect Englishman, far away from home.
I can’t think of anything else in life that has taught me more, or brought me so much joy.
A Crack in Creation, Jennifer Doudna (Houghton Mifflin, 2017)
If you haven’t heard of CRISPER Cas9, the technology that allows for personal gene editing, then it is only a matter of time until you do. And this book, written by the woman who helped discover it, does an incredibly good job of explaining just how it works.
However, it does even more than that since Doudna is not only willing to take the time to explain cutting edge biotech to a lay audience, but also to engage in the wider implications of her discoveries. In doing so she reveals just how hard it is for scientists to ‘do no harm’ in our interconnected, fast-paced and unpredictable world.
Alistair Fraser is currently Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at the University of Glasgow. His work focuses centrally on issues of youth, crime, and globalisation, with a particular interest in youth 'gangs' in a global and comparative context.
The Long Drop, Denise Mina (Harvill Secker, 2017)
This is a ripping true-fiction yarn spun by one of Scotland’s finest chroniclers of the innerlife of the underworld. It tells the true story of the macabre relationship struck between the serial killer Peter Manuel and William Watt, a relative of one of his victims; and the cat-and-mouse game of bluff and counter-bluff they play as Watt seeks to extract key information through whatever means necessary. The action alternates between a woozy, boozy night shared by these odd bedfellows, taking in pin-sharp scenes of Glasgow’s illicit drinking dens and hidden corners, and the courtroom drama of the Manuel trial. The contrast between mobile and static intrigue builds a dizzying, lurching tension where guilt and innocence merge and blur. Though a fictional account, it leaves you with a ring of truth.
Mafia Life, Federico Varese (Profile Books, 2017)
One for the Sopranos fan in your life. Varese takes you on an expert tour of Mafiosi around the world: their customs, rituals, politics, lives, loves and foibles. Varese has strained a career-worth of hard-won academic knowledge of transnational organised crime – on Russian and Sicilian Mafias, Hong Kong Triads, Somalian pirates, and Mafia film – through a pot-still, blending it with a wide range of secondary sources to concoct a powerful hooch, equal parts reportage, data, and reflection. The result is an intoxicating narrative that tugs the reader from Hong Kong to Moscow, Salford to New Jersey, Tokyo to Sicily in search of the essence of Mafia Life. There is humour, pathos and poignancy amid stories of violence, corruption and intimidation. It begins and ends, festively, in a snowswept Russian graveyard. But it leaves you anything but cold.
Dr Pippa Marland
Dr Pippa Marland is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, working on the ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing, 1789-2014’ project. Her research focuses on the contemporary literature of islands around the British-Irish archipelago.
RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate, 2017)
My research involves reading a lot of nature writing, and I’ve developed a certain familiarity with its generic form and content. It’s exciting, then, to come across a book which falls broadly into this category but which is so wonderfully unexpected. In RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, Hoare thinks across the traditional divide between nature and culture, exploring human and animal histories in a complex, moving, and sometimes dream-like narrative, whose elements are held together by the universal presence of the ocean and the celestial pull of the tides.
Encounters with cetaceans and seabirds are interwoven with tales of people, both living and long dead, reflections on literary works and films, and, touchingly, an account of the author’s own early obsession with ‘starman’ David Bowie. Throughout the book, Hoare uncovers recurring allusions to two towering works of the oceanic imaginary - The Tempest and Moby Dick. It’s extraordinary, challenging writing, but, somehow, it works.
The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)
Becoming a great-aunt for the first time this year might have made me more aware of my age, but it also gave me the opportunity to give a special book to my great-niece: The Lost Words. This is a beautiful and strangely hopeful work which brings to life, through spell-poems and illustrations, words relating to the natural world that are being lost from children’s vocabularies.
In the face of all-consuming global economic forces, it’s often difficult to be optimistic about the role of culture. And yet, who knows what effect The Lost Words might have on the next generation’s relationship with nature? Perhaps the alliterative, onomatopoeic charms in this book, currently being chanted by parents and children all over the country, will help to conjure up the conditions in which wrens, otters, dandelions, starlings, conkers and kingfishers can be restored not just to children’s language but also to their lives.
Pip Laurenson is Head of Collection Care Research at Tate. Her work addresses the need for new knowledge to explore the many challenges related to the conservation, management and care of Tate’s collection.
Curated Decay. Heritage Beyond Saving by Caitlin Desilvey (University Of Minnesota Press, 2017)
Life oozes out of this surprisingly uplifting book on decay. Curated Decay is beautifully written by a researcher who is warmingly present; a person with a life, a family, jobs and human constraints that move her to the next project or bring her back to the complexity of our all too human response to change and loss.
Beginning her story in an historic homestead in Montana, Desilvey describes a place which is seething with what Jane Bennett has coined ‘vibrant matter’. Quoting Georges Bataille, Desilvey evokes a place of ‘unstable, fetid and lukewarm substances where life ferments ignobly.’ She makes a case for a ‘post preservation’ approach to managing change, an approach focussed on the generative and the continuous; ‘caring without pickling’.
Curled up over the holidays, I hope in the warm, you will go with Desilvey to crumbling harbours, windswept lighthouses, rural and urban places navigating boundaries between nature and the remains of heavy industry. While many of the conundrums raised are far from new, peeking through this book is someone up for gently exploring a new approach which has relevance far beyond the sites described. We are expert at cherishing, but this book asks us to consider that some places and things need more to allow them to flourish.
David Hammons Bliz-aard Ball Sale by Elena Filipovic (Afterall Books, 2017)
This book is focussed around one work, Bliz-aard Ball Sale 1993 by David Hammons. A seasonally appropriate artwork in which the artist presented for sale a number of perfect snowballs, of different sizes, precisely arranged on a brightly coloured African rug on the pavement among the other street vendors in the Lower East Side of New York.
Elena Filipovic has doggedly researched her evasive subject; a work created by a mercurial master of resistance and an expert at ‘clogging the system’. Deftly drawing out the layered politics of Hammon’s work, Filipovic argues that an important medium in his art-making is rumour. In addition to the rumours which swirl around Bliz-aard Ball Sale, there is another rumour retold that Hammons had created a work for the Venice Biennale where an African migrant sells real designer bags among the many street vendors of Venice selling counterfeit wares. A rumour typically challenging to verify and perhaps not even started by Hammons himself.
In addition to events such as Bliz-aard Ball Sale, which defy categorisation in our normal lexicon of ‘performance’ or ‘happening’, Hammons also creates fugitive prints and compelling alchemical objects born of ‘tragic magic’, laid out in ‘the path of your everyday existence’. Sculptural objects that Filipovic describes as ‘wonky, witty and witchy’. Some of these were included in this year’s finely researched, knock-out exhibition ‘Soul of a Nation’ at Tate Modern. If that was your stand out cultural moment of the year, Filipovic’s riveting book is the perfect book to dive into this Christmas.
What links both of these books, is a deep engagement with the charged nature of matter. Both point to process and continuity as alternative frames through which to approach the ongoing life of heritage and art, whether material or immaterial. The direction this might take may surprise us; as Hammons notes: ‘Rumours live a very long time’.