What are you reading? – 30 April 2020

Our regular look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

April 23, 2020
PIle of books
Source: iStock

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, is reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Tinder Press, 2020). “Talk about prescient – this fictional biography of Shakespeare’s doomed son was published just eight days after the UK was put into full lockdown: Hamnet, answering a knock on the front door, is greeted by a figure ‘cloaked in black, and in the place of a face is a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a giant bird...The spectre is speaking without a mouth, saying he will not come in, he cannot, and they, the inhabitants, are hereby ordered not to go out, not to take to the streets, but to remain indoors until the pestilence is past.’ Acutely attuned to the boundless despair of maternal grief, this pensive novel, by turns tender and intense, suggests in its final scene that art can provide some consolation. We may yet be compelled to put that to the test.”

Kalwant Bhopal, professorial research fellow and professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, is reading Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (Bloomsbury, 2020). “This book is based on analysing three years of reporting and hundreds of hours of interview transcripts from senior members of the Trump administration and first-hand witnesses of the first term of his presidency. Its excellent, terrifying, ‘warts and all’ account reveals the lengths to which one man will go in order to hold on to power. As one insider put it, ‘Trump cared more about putting on a show than about the more mundane task of governing. There could be no restraining the grievances Trump felt nor curbing the chaos he created.’ A must-read for anyone interested in power, politics and the need to be in control – at whatever cost.”

Lincoln Allison, emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick, is reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: the Biography (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2011). “A brief comment on a book of this magnitude might seem inappropriate. But, on reflection, the story of Jerusalem is a version of one damn thing after another – one damn occupation after another: Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans...That’s what you get for being a holy place to three major religions, each riven by factions. Jerusalem is an edgy, fascinating and, in some respects, deeply unpleasant place and all that reflects its history. Sebag Montefiore’s account is beyond readable; it is gripping, even if you know (roughly) what happens next. It is largely narrative, pausing for reflection only in the epilogue. An obvious question arises out of three millennia of appalling behaviour: who was the worst? I think the prize must be given to the Crusaders, with the Ottomans in their late, ‘Young Turk’ manifestation running them close.”


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