What are you reading? – 25 February 2016

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

February 25, 2016
Book open on table

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor, University of Reading, recently finished Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire (Jonathan Cape, 2015). “Ambitious in scope and long in length at more than 900 pages, Hallberg’s debut novel is an exhausting read. Set in New York at its nadir in 1976-77, it vividly captures the decline and decay of the city through a set of characters whose lives overlap. A good but not great ‘literary’ novel that certainly could have done with being 300 pages shorter.”

Carina Buckley, instructional design manager, Southampton Solent University, is reading Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (Pan Macmillan, 2014). “Nella, a simple country girl, is puzzled by mysterious happenings in 17th-century Amsterdam. After a few chapters, so are we. How does the motiveless miniaturist do what she apparently does? Why does Nella’s oddly reticent husband have such a problem with the Meermans’ sugar? And why is the dialogue so frustratingly unsatisfying? That’s one mystery too many for me.”

Richard Joyner, emeritus professor of chemistry, Nottingham Trent University, is reading William Shaw’s A Song from Dead Lips (Quercus, 2014). “There is a lot of good new detective fiction around. DS Cathal Breen and DC Helen Tozer, an interesting pair of crime fighters, star in this impressive debut novel by a former music journalist. Their case is firmly located in real events of 1968, the year of the Biafran war in Nigeria and The Beatles’ White Album. I remember it well.”

Faye Hammill, professor of English, University of Strathclyde, is reading Wayne A. Wiegand’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015). “Eighteenth-century social libraries in Philadelphia and Salem served wine but shunned fiction as unwholesome. By the 1820s, St Louis boasted a ‘Reading Room and Punch House’. The surprising connection between libraries and alcohol is just one of the many fascinating revelations of Wiegand’s narrative, which demonstrates that library history is also the history of social life and civic culture.”

R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, is reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2004). “This book draws heavily on an earlier work by the author, which dealt with one strand of the long saga that is handled here in its complex, sprawling entirety. Sir James Murray, dogged and long-suffering first editor of the OED, gets pride of place, but is firmly situated in the context of his university setting and the devoted permanent staff and the veritable army of volunteers who supplied the bulk of quotations.”

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