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Summer Reads


As we head in to the season of summer holidays we asked some of our New Generation Thinkers and AHRC theme fellows for the books that they’ll be packing in their suitcases.

Leah Broad University of Oxford and New Generation Thinker

The Serious Game by Hjalmar Söderberg

I think this is Söderberg’s most beautiful book. Set in Stockholm, it follows a young journalist’s affair with his childhood sweetheart. It’s a story about love, and what happens when free will is set against fate, duty against desire. Beyond that, The Serious Game paints an extraordinary portrait of Söderberg’s Sweden, at the beginning of the twentieth century. He weaves references to politics, literature, and contemporary culture into the narrative, making it a fascinating snapshot of the country’s history. This is one of the very few books I’ve reread — multiple times — and each time I find something new.

The Idea of North by Peter Davidson

This is a study of various different cultural depictions of ‘North’, from William Morris’s paintings to C. S. Lewis’s White Witch. The North that Davidson explores is more than a compass point — it represents something that we constantly strive for but never quite attain. He takes us on a fascinating journey through time and place to explore different representations of North, always in captivating, melodious prose. One sentence from this book sums it up better than I could: ‘North moves always out of reach, receding towards the polar night, which is equally the midnight dawn in the summer sky.’

Professor Richard Clay Newcastle University and Commons Fellow

How Much Land Does A Man Need? by Leo Tolstoy

These two beautifully crafted short stories, How Much Land Does A Man Need and What Men Live By, were republished among the 80 pocket-sized editions issued by Penguin to mark 8 decades in business. The series has now sold over 2 million copies and has been extended to include a further 46 titles – any one of which would be wonderful holiday reading. But perhaps, these two stories that explore the consequences of self-interest and of benevolence might be best read aloud. After all, they were written when Tolstoy had become, in A. N. Wilson’s words, ‘a sort of holy anarchist’ inspired by the oral traditions of itinerant Russian storytellers. Moving, thought provoking, and easy to pack.

Think Like a Commoner: a Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons by David Bollier

In writing this book, Bollier set out to provide an over-view of some of the major themes that feature in literature about ‘the commons’; no mean feat, given how extensive such writings have become. For example, in Stop Thief, Peter Linebaugh has looked at the history of the commons, Elinor Olstrom explored contemporary ‘commonsing’ practices among communities across the globe in her Noble prize-winning work, and, in Common as Air, Lewis Hyde has focused on ‘cultural commons’. Yet, Bollier has succeeded in synthesising such wide-ranging materials into a straightforward read. While the polemical tone might grate in places, Think Like a Commoner is a stimulating introduction to an intriguing body of scholarship that has wide-ranging implications globally.

Dr Katherine Cooper Newcastle University and New Generation Thinker

Full House by Molly Keane

In terms of recommendations, there is no writer I would ever recommend more than Molly Keane AKA M.J. Farrell (apologies to Storm Jameson). The daughter of a well-to-do family in early twentieth-century Ireland, Keane had to disguise her gender and her background in order to avoid tainting her family name and marriage prospects with the unforgiveable sin of writing utterly hilarious novels about Irish country life. Set against the backdrop of more serious issues such as rising Irish nationalism and the increasing decline of the country house, Keane’s stories are awash with gin cocktails, astute social commentary and eccentric characters. How I wish I could read them all anew. Start with: Full House (1935).

The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular World and Treacherous Life of Alessandro de Medici by Catherine Fletcher

This summer I’m going to be reading former New Generation Thinker Catherine Fletcher’s book The Black Prince of Florence (2016). I can’t wait to read it and am rather embarrassed to admit that I’m hoping it will be a far more factual and authoritative antidote to my most recent TV boxset of choice, The Borgias. I find the early modern period in Europe utterly fascinating and am looking forward to lying in the sun reading Fletcher’s account of complex political manoeuvrings, blood feuds and family intrigue, set against the backdrop of sixteenth-century Italy.

Dr Victoria Donovan University of St Andrews and New Generation Thinker

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev by Andrey Kurkov

‘When I can’t find the right words, my hand moves of its own accord towards books’, writes Andrey Kurkov, in the midst of the Maidan protests, on January 15 2014. I’ve been meaning to read Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries for a while now, but it seems that my hand finally moved towards it when I was struggling to find my own words about the fallout from the EU referendum vote. There’s a strange parallelism between the events documented by Kurkov – the radical regionalization that followed Yanukovich’s withdrawal from negotiations with the European Union – and the deep regional cleavages that now divide British society in the wake of our disastrous vote. Kurkov’s gentle and even humorous account is a moving reminder that at the centre of all revolutionary events are people’s lives, families, and futures.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes’s fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich is written, like Stravinsky’s famous symphony, in three movements. Each movement finds the composer in a state of melancholic contemplation: following the catastrophic reception of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (famously condemned by Stalin as ‘muddle instead of music’); after a humiliating state visit to New York where he’s forced to denounce his émigré heroes; and at the end of his life, when, celebrated as a People’s Artist, he swims in Soviet accolades ‘like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce’. The book is a masterfully rendered study of the Soviet ‘captive mind’, the condition of intellectual enslavement described by the Polish writer Czesław Miłosz. Barnes’s musical prose, lilting across the Russian twentieth century, evokes the Soviet experience in all of its brutality and tragicomedy. Admittedly it’s not the obvious summer read, but it’s beautiful and important and, I think it’s safe to say, will make you a better person.

Dr Louisa Uchum Egbunike Manchester Metropolitan University and New Generation Thinker

Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila

Waiting for an Angel provides a window into Nigeria of the 1990s during its most intense period of military rule. Habila’s fluid prose captures this tense period in modern Nigerian history, delving into issues such as the clampdown on free speech, the disappearances of detractors but also the deep commitment felt by Nigeria’s writers as they continued to speak truth to power. Habila’s writing transports you into world of his characters who must navigate this difficult terrain whilst maintaining hope that things will and must change.

Blessed Bodies edited by Unoma Azuah

I have recently purchased an e-book copy of 'Blessed Bodies - An LGBT Anthology' edited by Unoma Azuah. Azuah provides a platform for Nigeria’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community, recording their stories in this collection. On a website that fundraised for this project, we are told that the contributors ‘believe that if their stories could be heard, maybe they would draw empathy and understanding from their fellow compatriots.’ This is particularly pertinent given the anti-gay laws passed by the Nigerian government in 2014. This text aims to bring about greater understanding by enabling us to hear the voices of those who are often found at the margins of Nigerian society.

Professor Charles Forsdick University of Liverpool

Scientific Babel by Michael Gordin

One of the pleasures and challenges of being a theme leadership fellow is extending my reading into areas about which I know very little. In preparation for a workshop in the Autumn on translating cultures and the medical humanities, I will be reading Michael Gordin's Scientific Babel (Profile Books, 2015), a study – as its subtitle suggests – of 'the language of science from the fall of Latin to the rise of English'. Gordin provides a striking example not of linguistic history but of writing history linguistically. The book is about translation – of texts, ideas and knowledge –, and explores the role that multiple languages have played in the development of science globally.

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Mary and Bryan Talbot; and The Last Communard by Gavin Bowd

I will also be using the summer to catch up with some recent graphic novels. Last year, I particularly enjoyed Red Rosa (Verso, 2015), a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans. I am now looking forward to reading The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia (Jonathan Cape, 2016), Mary and Bryan Talbot’s biography of the communard Louise Michel. In the context of a current project on penal heritage, I am particularly interested in the sections on Michel’s incarceration in New Caledonia, when she took up the Kanak cause against French colonial oppression. I will be reading The Red Virgin in tandem with The Last Communard (Verso, 2016), Gavin Bowd’s biography of Adrien Lejeune, who also fought on the barricades of the Paris Commune in 1871 but died in Siberia seven decades later in 1942.

Professor David Galbreath University of Bath

How Information Grows by Cesar Hildago

The book is a fantastic introduction into the way that nature rests on a principle of entropy and therefore the ever increasing information over time and the impact this has on natural and social order. From the astronomical to the historical, Hildago discusses how the quality of information allows us to determine certain patterns over time, in the future and into the past. The book is strongly rooted in both philosophy and natural sciences but is taken to explain how economies develop over time. Finally, the book is an example of a scholar allowing the research to follow fundamental questions of natural and social order.

Dr Sarah Jackson Nottingham Trent University and New Generation Thinker

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (translated by James Strachey)

This summer, to celebrate the birth of Sigmund Freud one hundred and sixty years ago, I’m returning to his seminal text, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). It is here that Freud insists that studying one’s own dreams, as well as the dreams of others, marks the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious. This is precisely what he does in this complex and unsettling book; one of the largest of the twentieth century, it is filled with over two hundred dreams of flowers, feathers and fish, as well as of staircases, seals and smoked salmon. The dream symbols within are notoriously bizarre – from asparagus to a nail file – but what is often overlooked is Freud’s own warning against the crude interpretation so often associated with his work. Last night I dreamed of a flock of birds; despite knowing that dreams are subject to all sorts of unconscious distortion, no doubt I will re-read this classic with the hope of discovering what it might mean.

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith

’I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure’, wrote Virginia Woolf. During a visit to my own local library, the management of which has recently been transferred to a ‘Community Benefit Society’, I was prompted to borrow Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories published this year in paperback. She is a dazzling writer who celebrates the library with clarity and wit. Her twelve stories play with an economy of lending by borrowing from others: writers from Lawrence to Woolf materialise in unexpected places throughout. But in one of my favourites, ‘The Ex-Wife’, it is the voice of Katherine Mansfield that echoes loudest. Jealous of an ex-partner’s passion for the modernist, the narrator takes revenge by boxing up Mansfield’s letters alongside thrillers by Stieg Larsson. The stories are interspersed with reflections by contemporary writers about the significance of the public library in light of recent closures: Smith estimates that more than one thousand closed during the time it took to write and publish this book. A spirited collection: borrow it if you can.

Professor Andrew Prescott University of Glasgow

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis

One of the fascinating aspects of my work on the AHRC Digital Transformations theme has been the opportunity to find out more about the rich world of literary illustration through working with Professor Julia Thomas of Cardiff University on The Illustration Archive (illustrationarchive.cf.ac.uk). The nineteenth-century illustrator is brought centre stage by Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), which takes as its starting point the tragic story of the artist Robert Seymour who originally conceived The Pickwick Papers. Jarvis explores the tensions in the relationship between author and illustrator in a series of powerful and evocative scenes.

Snarl: In Defense of Stalled Traffic and Faulty Networks by Ruth Miller

My non-fiction recommendation was drawn to my attention by Professor David Galbreath. the AHRC-ESRC Conflict Theme Lead Fellow for the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security (PaCCS), illustrating the value of cross-theme dialogue in the research councils. We generally assume that openness and interconnectivity are essential to a free society, but Ruth Miller’s astonishing Snarl: In Defense of Stalled Traffic and Faulty Networks (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013) discusses how gridlocks and blockages have their own creative energy and possess great ideological and cultural significance. This book turned upside down all my preconceptions about the nature of freedom of movement, interconnectivity and borders. Its emphasis on the role of the ‘mechanical public sphere’ is particularly significant as we witness the rise of robotics and the internet of things.

Dr Seán Williams University of Sheffield and New Generation Thinker

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

“I’m currently re-reading Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare, since I’m writing a cultural history of the hairdresser. Huchu’s novel is about contemporary, social issues of gender and sexuality in Zimbabwe, as well as politics. In the story, the hair salon is a space in which traditional cultures, political classes, post-colonial narratives and the influence of global fashions intersect — and conflict. It’s a tragic book, but also has its humorous moments and is fast-paced.”

Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty by Catherine Bailey

This past academic year I’ve spent a lot of time travelling for research, and so this summer I’m planning on staying put and exploring the area I’ve recently moved to: Sheffield. Nearby, Wentworth Woodhouse is a stately home with the largest facade in Europe. But it fell into ruin in the early twentieth century — for many reasons, including a romance between JFK’s sister and the eighth Earl Fitzwilliam Wentworth. Catherine Bailey wrote Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty for a general readership, and my partner read it while we were on a short spring break. Now it’s my turn before I book a tour of the house!

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