What are you reading? – 10 January 2019

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

January 10, 2019

Richard J. Williams, professor of contemporary visual cultures at the University of Edinburgh, is reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future (translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait; Penguin Modern Classics, 2016). “I have no idea how I missed this when it came out, or for that matter Alexievich’s account of the disastrous Afghan war. Anyway, I’ve been gripped by both. Chernobyl Prayer deals with the human response to the disaster, using a distinctive polyphonic method that allows a variety of voices, contrasting and sometimes conflicting, to build a nuanced and textured narrative. The story has two particularly striking dimensions. One is the way that residents of the contaminated zone have to negotiate the return of wolves, wild boars and other animals that had retreated into folklore. The other is the complex logic behind the human return to the zone. From outside Chernobyl, it seems like suicide. From inside, seen in relation to an exceptionally militarised state, and the folk memory of war, it makes perfect, if crazy, sense.”

Carina Buckley, instructional design manager at Solent University, is reading Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s Ice (translated by Thomas Teal; Sort of Books, 2016). “Petter Kummel, a young Lutheran priest, gains his first position on one of the isolated Åland islands far off the coast of Finland shortly after the end of the Second World War. With his wife and baby daughter, he sets about ministering to a sometimes reluctant flock, while his wife contends with the household, the land and the animals. In sparse prose that belies the level of detail, Lundberg introduces a whole village of characters, bringing to light their lives, the hardships they face and the warm camaraderie that sustains them. It is a quiet novel, the kind where nothing happens until suddenly everything does, in the way that a single event can tear apart everything you have ever known.”

Lincoln Allison, emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick, is reading David Andress’ Beating Napoleon: How Britain Faced Down Her Greatest Challenge (Abacus, 2012). “It is good for one’s sense of perspective to read about an England of two centuries ago, which is not only deeply divided, especially about ideas and politics emanating from a ‘Continental System’, but also in a moral panic about street crime and unemployment. Andress’ account of the years 1793-1815 is a reminder that wars are normally fought against a backdrop of internal division and financial hazard – something we tend to forget in our narratives of unity and ‘total’ war. His judgement that Napoleon was doomed by the simplicity of his egotism, especially when compared with the more sensitive (and sensible) Wellington, is familiar. The significance of Spencer Perceval – a man known generally only for the manner of his demise – and Lord Liverpool were much less familiar, to me at least.”

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