Books for Christmas: Part 1
There is something really special about popping into a local bookshop, spending some time browsing the bookshelves and buying friends and families a good book.
We asked our New Generation Thinkers and Theme Fellows to help with those Christmas lists by telling us which books they are looking forward to reading over the Christmas period.
We had such a great response that we have split the recommendations into two parts. In Part 1, our New Generation Thinkers suggest some good reads that will surprise, inspire and captivate.
Leah is completing her PhD at the University of Oxford. Her research is on Nordic modernism, exploring the music written for the theatre at the turn of the 20th century, taking her to Finland and Scandinavia to search out scores which have not been heard since the early 1900s.
Everything I Don’t Remember, Jonas Hassen Khemiri (trans. Rachel Wilson-Broyles)
Like everything that Khemiri writes, it’s difficult to place Everything I Don’t Remember into one literary category. It’s part of what gives the novel its charm — it’s about memory, loss, love, and forgiveness; partly memoir, partly whodunnit, and partly philosophical musing on how we deal with the gaps created in our lives by forgetting. This book won the August Prize, Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, and makes an ideal introduction to Khemiri’s extraordinary writing.
The Last of the Light: About Twilight, Peter Davidson
This charming volume is the perfect gift for art enthusiasts. Professor Peter Davidson takes the reader on a whimsical journey through artists’ and authors’ depictions of twilight, pondering the power that this luminescent borderland has held over the European imagination. As a bonus, the book is beautifully illustrated, giving a visual arm to Davidson’s tour of both famous and lesser-known names.
Katherine is based at Newcastle University. Her research focuses on war, nation and Europe in the literature of the first half of the twentieth century.
The New Odyssey, Patrick Kingsley
As Europe’s attentions are diverted from the refugee crisis by other world events and by an apparent easing in the number of people making the journey, Patrick Kingsley’s account remains highly topical reading. A compassionate account which gives the real human stories behind those often described as ‘hoard’ or ‘swarms’ in the press, this book is a crucial tonic to a politics increasingly lacking in empathy and generosity. It weaves together the accounts of a number of refugees who Kingsley followed as they attempted to cross into Europe and in their onward journeys to find a new home on the Continent. As a Christmas read, it is an incredible testament to the tremendous sacrifices of which human beings are capable and perhaps a prompt to remember those separated from their families and displaced from their homes at this time of year.
Selected Short Stories, Katherine Mansfield
What you really need at Christmas is a good novel to curl up with. I always recommend Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Short Stories. Although not as revered as contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf, who once declared herself ‘jealous’ of Mansfield’s writing, Mansfield’s place within the twentieth century canon is increasingly being recognised. Woolf was right to be jealous of her writing – Mansfield produces the most exquisite, sensuous short stories. Her work is all colours and feelings and sounds, representing perfectly the sorts of intangible sensory or internalised experience that modernism aimed to capture. The stories focus around women’s experiences and often around the home, in a variety of settings, from London to rural New Zealand where Mansfield grew up. A captivating Christmas treat.
Victoria is based at the University of St Andrews. She is a cultural historian of Russia whose research explores local identities, heritage politics, and the cultural memory of the Soviet past in twenty-first century Russia.
Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alexievich (trans. by Bela Shayevich)
Second-Hand Time by 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich has a puzzling title. Even more so in the original Russian, where ‘second-hand’ is rendered in the transliterated form ‘sekond khend‘, lending a further degree of foreignness to the descriptor. If the foreign time to which Alexievich refers is post-Soviet time, the reader she is addressing is the ‘Soviet person’, a character forged in the authoritarian conditions of late-socialism. This person, Alexievich explains, was displaced by the revolution of 1991, which saw socialism as a way of life disappear from the territory of the former Soviet Union. The author’s efforts to reconstitute this lost world, to recover a past which is today, quite literally, another country, takes the form of a rich and densely detailed tapestry of memories. Alexievich, who has elsewhere described herself as ‘an ear’ into which pour the stories of a displaced nation, has woven multiple voices into her narrative so deftly that the seams where her voice meets those of her interlocutors is barely apparent. Read this book to learn of ‘the myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life’. Published this year in luxurious paperback and translated by the dextrous Bela Shayevich it is the perfect gift for anyone interested in post-Soviet identities and culture.
Odessa Stories, Isaac Babel (trans. trans. by Boris Dralyuk)
In May 2014, following the outbreak of violence in Eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian forces and pro-Western demonstrators clashed in the southern port town of Odessa. The city, most famous for the massacre on the Odessa steps scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin‘ (1925), found itself once more at the centre of world attention for spectacular acts of brutality. No artist has better captured the seething violence at the core of the city’s history than Odessa native and literary pioneer Isaac Babel. Babel’s ‘Odessa Stories‘, translated here with delightful limberness by fellow townsman Boris Dralyuk, are a dark cycle of myth-inspired parables and fictionalised memoirs that feature a host of tricksters, mobsters, and murderers whose violent excesses Babel describes in ornamental detail. The physicality of Babel’s prose is arresting – from a comb placed on a mother’s breast to prick a greedy baby to the guts of a gored dove sluicing down a child’s face, the imagery is uncommonly raw. Gift this book to a friend who likes their prose feral and revolutionary and who can stomach unflinching portrayals of man’s cruelty to man.
Sarah is a poet and senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. Her current research examines the relationship between telephony and literature, exploring the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers and thinkers from Arthur Conan Doyle to Haruki Murakami.
Selected Poems, Michael Symmons Roberts
It’s been a pretty dismal year. On the eve of the US Presidential Election, I was in Nottingham listening to the poet Michael Symmons Roberts read his work. In the final poem of the evening, ‘A Plea for Clemency’, Roberts begged, ‘lend me one more night’. The poem ends:
don’t expect a welcome, don’t expect a fight,
bring a pack of bailiffs, to shake me from my bed,
slowly, go slowly, o agents of despair.
The following morning, the news of the election shook me from my bed – and the lines have stayed with me ever since. Roberts’s poems are meditative and searching, yet also mighty, and if his ’Selected Poems’ has the power to ‘shake’ up the current political climate, it does so with extraordinary tenderness and grace.
Falling Awake, Alice Oswald
In Falling Awake the writing is spare yet extraordinary, and it has an uncanny capacity to startle, rather like the cough that the poet hears in ‘Fox’: ‘as if a thief was there / outside my sleep / a sharp intake of air’. Oswald’s account of the natural world is astonishing, but her writing goes beyond this world too. The collection includes a 46-minute performance piece entitled ‘Tithonus’, a narrative poem based on the Greek mythological figure who must grow older without ever dying. Formally experimental, it marks a climax to a remarkable and compelling collection, rightly shortlisted for the Costa, T.S. Eliot and Forward poetry prizes. Both collections wake you up and shake you up, but both collections also have the power to lift you up and keep you going beyond the New Year.
Chris works at the Royal Historical Society. He is a historian working on the role of food in history. He explores what we can learn about societies and cultures through studying their diets, including what aubergines tell us about the changing tastes in food consumption.
In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory & its Ironies, David Rieff
Historical commemoration is at fever pitch this decade, from the ongoing centenary of the First World War to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. In this provocative short book, David Rieff argues that the weight of remembering the past is a troublesome burden that prolongs or creates division and conflict. Is it time we gave forgetting a chance?
The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914, Richard Evans
Richard Evans' sweeping new history of Europe in the long nineteenth-century charts the age of contradictions that produced the modern western world. From a Russian peasant's escape from a self-castrating religious sect to a Viennese aristocrat who would only handle her husband's right-wing newspaper with fire tongs, Evans shows how unprecedented freedom and dizzying progress went hand-in-hand with repressive reaction and brutal imperialism.
Seán is based at the University of Sheffield. He is currently writing a cultural history of the hairdresser from the 18th century to the present day exploring their role as ‘outsiders’ in society.
Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair, Emma Tarlo
A short report in The Family Doctor from March 1885 claimed that 50% of the hair used in English wigs and hairpieces came from Germany – although what the columnist did not know was that, even as early as this, much of the hair the English worked with came from much further afield, but was sold as “European” to increase its market value. The anthropologist Emma Tarlo has travelled around the world’s hair markets more recently, and written a book about the international hair trade today that was published in October this year: Entanglement: The Secrets Lives of Hair. I’m writing a cultural history of the hairdresser, rather than of hair itself, in a book that continues up until the present. So Tarlo’s study is a good point of reference for me. With photographs and written with a lightness of touch, it also makes for informative Christmas reading more generally.