What are you reading? – November 2020

Our regular look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

November 9, 2020

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, is reading Ali Smith’s Spring (Hamish Hamilton, 2019). “You wait for years for a spin-off of Shakespeare’s mangled yarn Pericles, and two come along at once! Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise (2019) is more obviously recognisable, but Smith’s poignant novel weaves a story of bereavement and grief alongside a furious indictment of Home Office intransigence and brutality surrounding immigration. Pericles’ Marina is here Florence, a saintly and miraculous agent of hope and tenderness and a lamb to the slaughter of contemporary intolerance: ‘Slogan. It means war cry…whether it’s take back control or leave means leave or don’t buy from Jews or I’m lovin’ it or just do it or every little helps.’ The wanderings of Pericles become the anxious jeopardy of asylum seekers, with populism, the alt-right and political spin the targets of Smith’s crushing invective.” 

A. W. Purdue, visiting reader in history at the Open University, is reading Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring (Arrow, 2015). “Spiritualism is a recurrent theme in Powell’s work and has, indeed, been an undercurrent in British society since the late 19th century. In this novel, first published in 1939, the disappearance of the popular travel writer T. T. Waring is announced at a séance by the summoned shade of George Eliot, who, bizarrely, insists on being addressed as ‘Mimi’. Among those in attendance is Waring’s publisher, for whom the supposed death of one of the firm’s best-sellers poses problems. A search for someone to write a biography is immediately begun. It transpires, however, that Waring never existed, save as the pen name for a man who had simply, if skilfully, regurgitated the works of older and now obscure authors. But how and why did he manage to announce the death of his creation in such an odd way? A fabulous lockdown read.”

Richard Larschan, English professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is reading Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Crown, 2020). “A virtuoso of cat-and-mouse thrillers – including The Devil in the White City, about serial killer H. H. Holmes, and Thunderstruck, about wife-murderer H. H. Crippen – Larson has a huge talent for multi-perspective historical narrative. He is equally masterful at juxtaposing military antagonists, as he does in Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania, and In the Garden of Beasts, about the American ambassador in Hitler’s Berlin – and here, once again, in this meticulous account of the Battle of Britain. Contrasting episodes of horrific aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe with scenes of upper-crust society at play produces a powerful ironic tension, while viewing the military and political deliberations of Churchill and Hitler from alternating perspectives offers fresh insight into the psychological and strategic factors that enabled Britain to survive such an unprecedented onslaught.”

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