What are you reading? – 22 September 2016

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

September 22, 2016
Person sat reading book at table
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David Brauner, professor of contemporary literature, University of Reading, is reading Howard Jacobson’s J (Cape, 2014). “I’m currently writing a monograph on Jacobson and have been systematically rereading all his work. J reminds me in some ways of his namesake Dan Jacobson’s The God-Fearer and of Kafka’s The Trial, but it has an uncanny quality all its own, which derives from its sly familiarisation of the strange and defamiliarisation of the quotidian. The book revisits, albeit obliquely, many of the concerns of The Finkler Question and also has formal echoes of The Very Model of a Man. Where it differs from Jacobson’s previous work is in its careful management of narrative structure. Habitually rather disdainful of plotting – the protagonist of Zoo Time remarks that ‘only a moron could be interested in plot’ – in J much of the power of the novel comes from the skilful timing with which Jacobson withholds and discloses its secrets.”

Judie Newman, emeritus professor of American studies, University of Nottingham, is reading Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas (Anchor, 2015). “This consists of four riveting novellas focused on turning points in the lives of Americans following encounters with Europeans – from the charming Irish fantasist of the title story, to Simone Weil misreading everyone in New York, to Thomas Mann, waging war on fascism in Gary, Indiana, and finally to the legacy of a 15th-century artist in modern Italy. Is fiction fake? Or does art lead to truths, even in the blarney of a rascal? Does a novelist do more to awaken the political sense than a philosopher? How does a 15th-century statue transcend its commodification by right- or left-wing interests? The Liar’s Wife is thought-provoking and intellectually meaty, and – spoiler alert – there are two happy endings.”

Peter Goodhew, emeritus professor of engineering, University of Liverpool, is reading Calestous Juma’s Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016). “At first I thought this book was going to be rather conventional, with discussion focused around the Industrial Revolution or the internet, but I am completely captivated by Juma’s actual choice of case studies. He analyses the (in all cases lengthy) struggles to establish coffee-drinking, printing in the Islamic world, margarine and tractors in the US, electricity for lighting, refrigeration, recorded sound and, more recently, transgenic crops. It amazed me that many of these key (and, with hindsight, substantial) advances attracted government legislation to ban or restrict them. Juma’s key point is the power of vested interests, once they get organised. And the organisation of opposition was, of course, itself stimulated by the proposed innovations. No change there, then: think fracking (but don’t buy into it)!”

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