What are you reading? – 22 March 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

March 19, 2018
Books on a shelf
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Richard J. Larschan, English professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Harcourt, 2007). “An ominous critique of Muslim-American relations after 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist challenges America’s glib assertions of economic and moral superiority while also ‘leav[ing] space for your thoughts to echo’ – as a central character says of the novella that she has written. In a thinly veiled allegory reminiscent of Albert Camus’ La Chute (The Fall), the protagonist/narrator named Changez works for the firm of Underwood Samson and is romantically pursing (Am)Erica, until pointed in a different direction by the sage Juan-Bautista. The term ‘fundamentalist’ in the title refers as much to Changez’s job evaluating corporate ‘fundamentals’ as to temptations to become a religious extremist. Hamid thus anticipates the danger both to individuals and to international stability produced by the nostalgic, xenophobic vogue to ‘make America great again’.”

R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history at the University of Winchester, is reading Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: How a Remarkable Woman Crossed Seas and Empires to Become Part of World History (Harper Perennial, 2008). “This is a remarkable book about someone who was indeed a remarkable woman. A fascinating blend of micro- and macro-history, it is at once an absorbing biography of Elizabeth Marsh (1735-85) – a wife and mother who adroitly negotiated the patriarchal system of her day to travel adventurously and lead a quasi-independent life – and an insightful overview of the rapidly changing interlocking continents of the 18th century, criss-crossed by an expanding British navy. England and mainland Europe, Africa, India and America all enter these pages. The painstaking and far-flung research that underpins this book is pieced out (only occasionally uncomfortably) by conjecture. It is a pity that the quality of the many black and white illustrations is, for the most part, so abysmally bad.”

Richard Joyner, emeritus professor of chemistry at Nottingham Trent University, is reading Jennet Conant’s Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist (Simon & Schuster, 2017). “Googling ‘famous organic chemists’ yields names such as Donald J. Cram, Robert Robinson and Elias Corey, who all made their names in the laboratory – but not James Bryant Conant (1893-1978). A Massachusetts native, he became a reforming president of Harvard University aged only 40, abolishing athletic scholarships and championing the use of scholastic attainment tests as an admissions tool. From 1941 to 1945 he was chairman of the US National Defense Research Committee, whose main responsibility was oversight of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. After the war, he argued strongly that the US should not develop the hydrogen bomb. From 1953 to 1957, a very sensitive time politically, he was US High Commissioner for Germany. He is lucky to have a granddaughter who is a skilled and scrupulous biographer.”

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