What are you reading? – 11 January 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

January 11, 2018
Pile of books
Source: iStock

June Purvis, emeritus professor of women’s and gender history, University of Portsmouth, is reading Clare Debenham’s Birth Control and the Rights of Women: Post-Suffrage Feminism in the Early ­Twentieth ­Century (I. B. Tauris, 2014). “It is often assumed that, after the granting of the parliamentary vote in 1918 to certain categories of women aged 30 and above, feminists drifted away from political activity. This has been keenly disputed in recent years by a number of scholars, and this highly readable book, which focuses on the nationwide campaign for birth control, contributes to the debate. Drawing upon memoirs, interviews and personal testimony, Debenham emphasises that birth control was important in providing self-determination for women in the way that the rubber sheath, which could easily be purchased in chemists, provided self-determination for men. As a Mrs Cooke lamented in 1923, what was the good of the franchise to women if she could not call her body her own?”

James Rogers, associate lecturer in international politics, University of York, is reading Andrew Cockburn’s Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High‑Tech Assassins (Verso, 2016). “The story is a familiar one. Failures in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s led to a revolution in military affairs; drones are a product of this. Yet Cockburn’s take is unique. He prises open the forgotten aspects of recent American history, capturing the important moments of failure and change. He draws out the key people, the pioneers who were not afraid to offer their critiques of expensive and unrealistic strategies, while also offering alternatives. He explores the long-held, often illusory, ambitions of American warfare, explaining how assassination is not always the best policy, and may even prove counterproductive. Perhaps most important, Cockburn reveals lessons about the adaptability of enemies and the false promises of technology. Although all too easily forgotten, these lessons, as recent wars have shown us, are actually the most crucial.”

Sir David Eastwood, vice-chancellor, University of Birmingham, is reading Jessica Duchen’s Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story in Music (Unbound Digital, 2016). “The story of the Schumann violin concerto is extraordinary. It was written in 1853, then suppressed unperformed by his wife Clara, abetted by Brahms, in the belief that Schumann’s mental condition had induced fading musical powers. The manuscript was deposited in the Prussian State Library. In 1933, at a seance in London, the violinist Jelly d’Arányi believed that she was contacted by Schumann and instructed to perform the concerto. Meanwhile the Nazis, having banned the Mendelssohn concerto, thought the Schumann might be a substitute, and insisted that Georg Kulenkampff give the first performance in 1937; d’Arányi later performed the UK premiere. Duchen weaves a novel around these extraordinary themes with imaginative ingenuity and a sense of period, casting d’Arányi as the heroine. A delight for those who love this misunderstood concerto, and a fascinating window into a story where life did indeed emulate fiction.”

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