What are you reading? – 12 December 2019

Our fortnightly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

December 12, 2019

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, is reading Joyce Carol Oates’ My Life as a Rat (Fourth Estate, 2019). “In this moving novel, set in 1990s upstate New York, the disintegration of an American Catholic family is triggered by the youngest daughter’s impossible choice between sibling omertà (which would allow her brothers, literally, to get away with a racially motivated murder) and her compulsion to tell the truth. The title hints at the scorn and ostracism which result from Violet Kerrigan’s ruinous decision; her consequent isolation, abuse and constant self-doubt are painfully recounted. Considering herself to be worthless, she stomachs the molestation of older men, while her dogged loyalty to her corrupt and hostile family is alarming and pitiful in equal measure. Profoundly melancholic, Violet’s story illustrates the shaping of identity by external circumstances both cussed and indifferent. Powerful stuff.”


Sharon Wheeler, senior lecturer in journalism and PR at the University of the West of England, Bristol, is reading Owen Hatherley and Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Metro Stations (Fuel, 2019). “A few years back, I bought a book called Soviet Bus Stops and was roundly mocked for doing so. Funny, then, how people sidled up and shiftily asked to borrow it. I’m fully expecting folk to do the same with Soviet Metro Stations. Browsing through Herwig’s photos from 15 metro systems across the old USSR transports (sorry!) me back to 1989, when a friend and I spent an open-mouthed afternoon riding around on the Moscow metro. Hatherley’s opening essay provides context for images that resemble something out of The Hobbit in the Ukraine through to those stunning creations in Moscow that wouldn’t look out of place at the opera.”


Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland, is reading Dominick Donald’s Breathe (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018). “Breathe is as dense as the smog that envelops 1950s London, the backdrop to the story. Dick Bourton, a Korean war veteran, is an inexperienced London policeman who is convinced that a string of apparently weather-related natural deaths are actually murders. Cleverly weaving in the real-life story of John Christie, the serial killer, Donald recreates the grey, moody and suspicious atmosphere of the times. An added layer of complexity is provided by the mysterious history of Bourton’s new wife and how she crosses paths with Christie in a search for a cure for her lung disease. This is an intelligent, complex and clever debut novel, although it might have benefited from being a hundred pages shorter.”

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