What are you reading? – 1 August 2019

Our fortnightly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

August 1, 2019
Woman reading a book
Source: iStock

Carina Buckley, instructional design manager at Solent University, is reading Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Faber & Faber, 2018). “Frances is 21, moody and insecure. So far, so student. She and her best friend and former girlfriend Bobbi perform at poetry nights, where they meet the couple who will test their relationship to its limits. Melissa, a photographer and essayist, immediately takes to Bobbi, leaving the awkward and self-conscious Frances to pursue a mutual attraction with actor husband Nick, constrained by self-delusion masquerading as irony. Populated by pseudo-intellectuals or wannabe radicals, the story probes the comforts and the pitfalls of the labels we give ourselves, the dazzling repartee of a dinner party crumbling under the realities of the following day. The petty cruelties and vulnerabilities of love take the foursome on some rather beautifully written and unexpected turns. Self-absorption has never looked so good.”

Nigel Rodenhurst, special support lecturer at Aberystwyth University, is reading Knut Hamsun’s The Wanderer (translated by Oliver Stallybrass and Gunnvor Stallybrass, Picador, 1975). “These two modernist novellas about a ‘wanderer’, Knut Pederson (the author’s real name), explore timeless literary themes such as the ‘complex’ soul seeking a ‘simple’ life, the decline of youth and the limits of the self. In some ways beautiful and in others repetitive and pompous, Hamsun’s fiction is neglected in UK universities, possibly because of his disputed Nazi sympathies (he is also reported to have despised the British). Hamsun’s hero/persona is certainly self-regarding and places dilemmas such as whether to sleep with a series of attractive women at the centre of his moral universe. But if one subscribes to the principle of judging the art and not the artist, this has all the attractions of reading Kafka, with all the attendant drawbacks, including self-absorption, which readers who expect fiction to engage with the sociological moment find so provoking.”

R.C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history at the University of Winchester, is reading Juliet Gardiner‘s The Children’s War: The Second World War through the eyes of the children of Britain (Portrait, in association with the Imperial War Museum, 2005). “The 1939-45 war was the first total war and this richly illustrated and well-organised book explores the various ways in which children were directly impacted. Bombing raids, evacuation schemes, rationing and other privations, war work, the disruption of family life, neighbourhoods and schooling, and juvenile crime all come under discussion. But whether the subtitle’s bold claim is actually achieved is questionable. A great deal of the book is about what was done on behalf of children and many of the quotations are retrospective rather than strictly contemporary. Old people’s reminiscences of war-time experience expressed in their words are inevitably different from what children felt and would have said at the time.”

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