What are you reading? – 9 November 2017

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

November 9, 2017
PIle of books
Source: iStock

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor, University of Reading, is reading Theo Farrell’s Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (Bodley Head, 2017). “To characterise a 13-year war as a combination of ‘political absenteeism and military hubris’ is a damning indictment. But that is Farrell’s conclusion in Unwinnable, a scholarly account of Britain’s recent engagement in Afghanistan. The case for intervention after 9/11 was compelling. Yet we ended up in Afghanistan much longer than first expected, not least because of Iraq. The limitations of that campaign provided political momentum for a deeper British commitment to Afghanistan, even though militarily it was a stretch. The lack of an overarching strategy, Pakistan’s tacit support for the Taliban and corruption across government were just some of the factors that contributed to the ‘unwinnable’ nature of the campaign. Salutary reading for politicians and generals alike.”


Liz Schafer, professor of drama and theatre studies, Royal Holloway, University of London, is reading Elaine McGirr’s Partial Histories: A Reappraisal of Colley Cibber (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). “Fake news, trolling, character assassination: it’s those literary greats Pope and Fielding having a go at the – for them – irritatingly successful star actor, manager, playwright, adapter and all-round man of the theatre  Colley Cibber. McGirr’s reassessment of Cibber’s career is original, scholarly, readable and unblushingly partisan. It also asks important questions about how historians can excavate or exhume acting; how management facilitates art; how typecasting works in history as well as onstage; how theatre historiography has to negotiate the vicious politics of canonical authors. McGirr won’t win everyone over – many feminists will never forgive Cibber for his treatment of his daughter, Charlotte Charke – but this book makes the name-calling and mud-slinging of the early 18th century seem uncomfortably relevant.”


Richard Joyner, emeritus professor of chemistry at Nottingham Trent University, is reading Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. “The Roman Catholic way of life seemed mysterious and a little threatening to this young Protestant boy in 1950s Northern Ireland. MacLaverty knows it intimately and has chronicled its inhabitants in excellent novels such as Cal, Lamb and Grace Notes. The protagonists in his latest – the first for 16 years – are Gerry and Stella Gilmore, sixty-somethings born in small-town Ulster but settled in Glasgow. They are on a short January break in Amsterdam, where Stella is seeking to rediscover a religious house for which she can leave Gerry and ‘lead a better life’. Gerry is merely looking for the next half-bottle of whisky, and I lost interest in him early on. By the end, I had also lost interest in Stella. Disappointing.”

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