What are you reading? – 14 March 2019

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

March 14, 2019
Dusty books

Lincoln Allison, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Warwick, is reading Frances Welch’s Imperial Tea Party: Family, Politics and Betrayal: the Ill-fated British and Russian Royal Alliance (Short Books, 2018). “Although rather amateurishly presented, this is a fascinating and well-researched slice of history. It covers the three meetings of the British Royal Family with their Romanov cousins, in Balmoral (1896), Reval (now Tallinn, 1908) and Cowes (1909). The fundamental drama arises from the dealings of constitutional monarchs tightly constrained by politics and their autocratic cousins threatened by revolution. Fortunately for the author, a large proportion of those involved kept diaries, so a vivid picture emerges of the characters and the tensions between them, both personal and cultural. Edward VII was the epitome of worldly sophistication, but described his nephew, the tsar, as ‘deplorably immature, unsophisticated and reactionary’. Had he been more like his Uncle Bertie, history might have turned out rather differently.”

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, is reading Adam Foulds’ Dream Sequence (Jonathan Cape, 2019). “This dark satire of contemporary celebrity culture, vanity and obsession moves between a prim, suburban Philadelphia, a manically hedonistic Doha and the familiar topography of London. Kristin, introverted and shy, is convinced that she is meant for Henry – a heart-throb actor familiar to her from a long-running English costume drama. The novel is bookended by her tortured fantasies of their being together. The middle section is an account of his wayward self-indulgence with drugs and glamour models at a film festival in Qatar. Foulds’ prose is both evocative and scrupulous: describing the Victoria Memorial, for instance, ‘Queen Victoria on her crowded monument, stern, pudgy, unattractive, her blank bored eyes staring into the traffic’. It’s a novel wired with anticipation of the central characters’ eventual meeting, and it doesn’t disappoint.”

A. W. Purdue, visiting reader at the Open University, is reading Peter Moore’s Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World (Chatto & Windus, 2018). “Moore teaches creative writing, and this narrative of the ship commanded by Captain Cook is illuminated by imagination and creativity. Particularly brilliant is the depiction of its context in 18th-century Britain, where the culture of intellectual enquiry we know as the Enlightenment prompted the Admiralty to support Cook, and he was accompanied by botanists, astrologers, artists and cartographers. But what about the tough, broad-beamed ship that had spent many years taking coals up and down the North Sea coast before she was called to higher things? Moore begins with the acorn that grew into an oak, which Whitby shipbuilders turned into the Endeavour, and ends with the discovery in mid-19th-century Rhode Island of a ‘large wooden post, splintered and wizened, but still upright’, all that remained of the gallant ship that had made so many famous voyages.”

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