What are you reading? – 1 March 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

March 1, 2018
Source: istock

Islam Issa, senior lecturer in English literature, Birmingham City University, is reading Bassem Youssef’s Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring (William Morrow, 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 about 50 times higher than Stewart’s and selection in the Time 100 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 under way because ‘questioning in itself is a prequel to a revolution’.”

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University, is reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (originally Heinemann, 1963). “I’ve never been a fan of Plath’s poetry – too self-absorbed and woe-is-me for my taste – so reading The Bell Jar was something I’ve put off for ages (I bought my copy 31 years ago!). But what a pleasant surprise! I was expecting Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but without the grim comedy (Kesey’s novel came out only one year before Plath’s). In fact, Plath’s prose style is a mixture of the sprightly and the coyly humorous. For instance, following a bout of food poisoning, Esther, the narrator, casually observes, ‘Usually after a good puke you feel better right away…There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.’ There are several harrowing accounts of electroconvulsive therapy and some vindictive descriptions of fellow patients, but the tone is unexpectedly refreshing and engaging, although tempered with a prevailing sense of disquiet.”

R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, is reading Leo Walmsley’s So Many Loves (Collins, 1944). “Walmsley (1892-1962), prolific, critically acclaimed and popular in the 1930s and 1940s chiefly as a novelist, is now semi-forgotten, despite the best efforts of an appreciation society. In this autobiography, Walmsley dwells chiefly on time spent on the Yorkshire coast, where he was brought up and to which he later returned, and on fishing, his great passion. His First World War service in the flying corps in East Africa, his struggles to establish himself as a writer, and his two unsuccessful ventures into the film industry feature here and show off his talent for narrative and vivid description. But in print as in life, Walmsley guarded his privacy and was cautious about revealing much of his inner self. Friendships occupy more space than the first of his failed marriages.”

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