What are you reading? – 29 August 2019

A fortnightly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

August 29, 2019
Stack of books
Source: iStock

Vernon Trafford, emeritus professor at Anglia Ruskin University, is reading John Woolf’s The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age (Michael O’Mara, 2019). “This is a remarkable book. Woolf writes sensitively and engagingly about the exploitation of freaks in Victorian and Edwardian times. He captures the spectators’ excitement as ‘normal’ people gazed at others considered to be unusual or abnormal. By presenting ‘freaks’ as people, Woolf gives his readers many insights into how exploitation occurred between minders and freaks – and often vice versa. Conjoined twins and those with other deformities, plus, of course, General Tom Thumb, are introduced and analysed from historical, medical, sociological and micro-political perspectives. Extensive scholarship and historical evidence provide an enjoyable ‘encore’ from the Victorian age. The claim of the book’s subtitle to ‘lift the curtain’ on a remarkable world is fully justified.”

Maria Delgado, professor and director of research at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, is reading Javier Cercas’ Lord of All the Dead (translated by Anne McLean, Maclehose Press, 2019). “Listening to Javier Cercas discuss the porous relationship between history and fiction at the London Review Bookshop in June inspired me to turn to his most recent book. This is quite simply one of his best novels, rendered into sharp, idiomatic English by Anne McLean. It is partly a portrait of his great-uncle, Manuel Mena, a young Falangist who volunteered for Franco’s rebel forces and was killed two years later from injuries received at the Battle of the Ebro. Forever an idealised figure in his mother’s life, Mena was immortalised by the family as a 20th-century Achilles who perished heroically on the battlefield. Digging into his family’s past as a way of reflecting on populist politics and the allure of right-wing ideologies, Cercas crafts a playful, erudite novel about inheritance.”

Randy Malamud, Regents’ professor of English at Georgia State University, is reading Quentin Blake and Laurie Britton Newell’s Ludwig Bemelmans (Thames & Hudson, 2019). “This is the first title in a new series, The Illustrators, that promises to be an exquisite resource. Images (including rare sketches, photographs and unpublished archival material) combine engagingly with critical overview and stylistic analysis. Madeline – published the week the Second World War began, making its evocation of Paris all the more poignant – is of course the centrepiece. Bemelmans’ sumptuous portfolio has a cosmopolitan allure that sprang from his early experience working in hotels and restaurants. This book presents charming drawings from that period, along with snazzy New Yorker covers, delightfully picturesque travel pieces and busily playful murals (some can still be enjoyed in the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans Bar in New York). Blake and Newell offer a visual capsule of this illustrator, whose legacy resonates well beyond ‘an old house in Paris that was covered with vines’, standing as a cherished touchstone of the mid-century aesthetic.”

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