What are you reading? – 30 August 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

August 30, 2018
A woman reading in an armchair
Source: iStock

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics, University of Buckingham, is reading Trevor Smith’s Workhouse to Westminster (Caper Press, 2018). “Trevor Smith (Lord Smith of Clifton) has packed into his life a number of academic and academic-related careers, and has made a success of all of them. He was born into a lower middle-class family in Hackney (his father was a hairdresser), and his education was sorely interrupted by the exigencies of wartime bombing and evacuation. Yet by dint of his own personal energy and persistence, he won a place at the London School of Economics and launched himself into an academic career, becoming foundation professor of politics at what was then Queen Mary College and vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster (1991-99). At the same time, he played a key role in the work of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and in the post-war revival of the Liberal Party. His pen portraits of Liberal leaders are deliciously perceptive, and pull no punches.”

Kalwant Bhopal, professorial research fellow and professor of education and social justice, University of Birmingham, is reading Iain Banks’ The Quarry (Abacus, 2014). “This was the last book Banks wrote before he died, and in some respects this is evident. The Quarry is a beautifully written tale of a dying man, his son and a reunion with six of his oldest friends – and the search for a missing videotape. The father-son relationship is both touching and troublesome, but described with humour and surrealism. Banks takes you on a journey of utter complexity, dark, funny and heartbreaking – yet optimistic at the same time. The direct, unpretentious fluency with which he handles the difficult themes of death and forgiveness are the signs of a genius. This book reminds us that he was and continues to be one of the finest writers of the 20th century.”

John Shand, honorary associate in philosophy, the Open University, is reading John Updike’s Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories (Fawcett Books, 1982). “The mystery is why Updike never got the Nobel Prize in Literature. One answer sometimes given is that his work is too parochial. But the same could apply to writers of timeless greatness such as Chekhov (whom Updike resembles in some ways) or Dostoevsky. It overlooks the way in which the supreme writers’ settings are particular but deal with the universal human condition. So too Updike, as he deals with the breakdown of a married relationship, the choices and the helplessness. The protagonists are subject to the four forces in life: love, habit, time and boredom, the greatest of which, in the end, is time. What staggers one above all else is the sheer skill and quality of the writing. And no nonsense about it being ‘beautifully written’ – a euphemism for boring and attention-sapping – as it’s incredibly readable.”

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