What are you reading? – 31 August 2017

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

August 31, 2017
Pile of books
Source: iStock

Sir John Holman, emeritus professor of chemistry, University of York, is reading Colm Tóibín’s House of Names (Viking, 2017). “Colm Tóibín retells the legend of sacrifice and revenge within the far-from-happy family of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Even without its Trojan War backdrop, it’s a powerful story, and Tóibín uses direct, unornamented language to show the visceral urges driving violent revenge that are so near to the surface of human behaviour. He has made the story his own and invented characters to stand alongside the legendary ones, and it is interesting to compare his story with Aeschylus’ Oresteia (in my case, the Ted Hughes translation). Where Aeschylus’ trilogy ends with the intervention of Athena to introduce the rule of law, Tóibín has a flimsy-feeling peace and reconciliation process. The killing has to stop, but for how long?”


Maria Delgado, professor and director of research, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, is reading Patrick Anderson’s Autobiography of a Disease (Routledge, 2017). “Part auto-ethnographic memoir, part performative essay and part meditation on the history of microbiology, this is a compelling contemplation of what it means to negotiate a life-threatening illness in the US medical system. Anderson’s sudden collapse into a coma in 2005 and his long recovery form the focus for broader reflection on hospitals and caregiving; on medicalisation, healing and mortality; and on the complex workings of the mind as the body suffers the assault of extreme illness. Literary representations of illness and specialist medical research enter into dialogue with a highly personal authorial journey realised through different narrative voices. The episodic structure offers a way of understanding the narrative and afterlife of illness, the politics of prognosis and how we make sense of the extraordinary and unexpected.”


Lincoln Allison, emeritus reader in politics, University of Warwick, is reading Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind (Granta, 2003). “Mountains were: forbidden and forbidding, an odious nuisance, godforsaken and ugly, an ‘other’ to be avoided. Mountains are: sublime and beautiful, a challenge to and a sustenance for the human spirit, God’s finest creation and an ‘other’ to be sought out as a respite from civilisation. The transition in the perception of mountains has been going on since the end of the medieval period, although it accelerated rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. It has been discussed in many fields, but rarely so fluently or comprehensively as here. Mountains of the Mind deals with theology and geology as well as the more familiar (to my mind) topics of mountains in relation to art and sport. Even better, Macfarlane successfully combines his scholarship with an intense personal essay because he is a mountaineer, part of a subculture with a complex and contradictory relation to the mainstream.”

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