THE books of the year 2017: part one

Winter reads: scholars and senior sector figures share the books that have made the greatest impact on them over the past year, and the ones they are most looking forward to reading

December 20, 2017
Red umbrella
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Elleke Boehmer
Professor of world literature in English, University of Oxford

I was delighted this past summer to have the opportunity to re-read Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe (Penguin), an epic in funky rhyme. No reader interested in Britain’s tangled histories with the rest of Europe can afford not to pick up this story of Sudanese Zuleika and her life in Roman Londinium. I am hugely looking forward to a study of Olive Schreiner, a writer who analysed precociously early what it was to be a woman in the southern peripheries of the world: Jade Munslow Ong’s Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing (Routledge).


John Bowers
Principal, Brasenose College, University of Oxford

I enjoyed Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton University Press), a magisterial study of the 1960s move towards coeducation on both sides of the Atlantic. The title refers to a letter sent by an alumnus to his college. In Oxford, much of the fiercest opposition came from the women’s colleges. Weiss also quotes E. N. Willmer of Clare College, Cambridge as saying “the proximity of women is inevitably a distraction to men and as such is likely to interfere with their sustained study and mental effort”. I am proud that Brasenose was among the first Oxford colleges to take women. I am looking forward to reading Rebecca Abrams’ The Jewish Journey (Ashmolean Museum). This takes 22 objects found in the museum which are of Jewish interest, ranging from a Sumerian king list to a Tang Dynasty camel.


Carrie Tirado Bramen
Professor of English, University at Buffalo

I recommend Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Fourth Estate). The author recounts her experience volunteering as a translator for the New York City immigration courts, where she interviews undocumented children from Central America who arrive at the US border as unaccompanied minors. She completes the questionnaire that determines whether they will be deported or granted immigration relief. An award-winning novelist from Mexico now living in the US, Luiselli is renowned for her storytelling, but here she describes the experience of listening. I was planning to read something lighter for the holidays, but then I came across Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press) by feminist philosopher Kate Manne. She argues that misogyny pits women against each other: the good wife versus “feminazis”. At a time when high-profile sexual predators have been exposed, I can’t imagine a more relevant read.


Catherine Clinton
Denman chair of American history, University of Texas at San Antonio

A sabbatical gave me an opportunity to read outside my current area of research, so I treated myself to Jason B. Johnson’s fascinating Divided Village: The Cold War in the German Borderlands (Routledge). As a historian of the American Civil War, I am intrigued by studies of conflict, and Johnson’s exploration of Modlareuth – the only German town outside of Berlin to be divided – does not disappoint. Learning about how the townspeople coped with the Iron Curtain imposed on their community, and how surveillance was a part of everyday life, makes for a great read. I eagerly anticipate Catherine Kerrison’s Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black in a Young America (Penguin). The plot twists of the Jefferson family saga are riveting. From the Virginia countryside to Paris convents, from humble abodes to the Court of St James, Kerrison’s painstaking research shines through, as she braids together these disparate, connected lives.


Peter Coaldrake
Vice-chancellor and president, Queensland University of Technology

For serious political junkies I can recommend John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life (Scribe UK). Seasoned students of Nixon will be absorbed by this highly readable tome, which tackles the subject’s complex personality, life and career. Particularly fascinating are the eight years of his vice-presidency under Eisenhower and his recovery from the loss of the California governorship in 1962 (he should never have run for a job in which he had no interest). His ambition and vast resilience took him to the pinnacle of power, but – as Farrell puts it – Nixon “created an environment in which leaks and spying were everyday and everywhere”. Next on my reading list is Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Little, Brown). It seems an obvious if foreboding choice in this age of Trump and Brexit.


Homeless sleepers
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Danny Dorling
Professor of geography, University of Oxford

The book I most enjoyed reading in 2017 (or, if not “enjoyed”, would least want not to have missed) is Rachael Kiddey’s Homeless Heritage: Collaborative Social Archaeology as Therapeutic Practice (Oxford University Press). This offers something shocking, thorough and new from the subdiscipline of social archaeology. There can be few books where the author has had to attend so many paupers’ funerals of those she has been working with, in order to tell a key part of the story of our times. Street homelessness is rising in Britain. Kiddey brings the people we almost always walk past (trying not to look) to life. I’m looking forward to reading Sam Pizzigati’s The Case for a Maximum Wage (Polity). If you have ever wondered exactly what your vice-chancellor should be paid, and why, I suspect that this book will have the answer. No more trying to avoid the question and mumbling about remuneration committees and “international talent”.


Sheila Fitzpatrick
Professor of history, University of Sydney

Lynne Viola’s Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine (Oxford University Press) offers something totally new from the archives on the Great Terror of the 1930s – the unknown aftermath of internal trials in Ukraine and elsewhere, in which NKVD perpetrators vigorously defended themselves against accusations of wrongdoing. Elizabeth McGuire’s Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell in Love with the Russian Revolution (Oxford University Press) is an engaging study of the Sino-Soviet romance, here understood literally in terms of love affairs and marriages, as well as friendships and intense intellectual-political interactions between the Chinese revolutionaries who visited the revolutionary Mecca from the 1920s to the 1950s and their Soviet hosts.


Biancamaria Fontana
Professor of the history of political thought, University of Lausanne

As soon as I learned that Robert Harris had published a novel called Munich (Hutchinson), I begun pestering salespersons in Swiss bookshops. The hero is a young English diplomat on Neville Chamberlain’s staff, who in 1938 accompanies the prime minister in his peace mission to Germany, but fails to stop him signing the agreement with Hitler. Why a novel? Sometimes historians have vivid intuitions about the behaviour of past actors that documents cannot prove: fiction is just a way of giving life to the missing evidence. The recent French presidential election has generated many books on the campaign and on the new president Emmanuel Macron, but also extended reflection on the nature of political leadership. In Napoléon et de Gaulle: deux héros français (Perrin), Patrice Gueniffey – best known to English readers for his massive biography Bonaparte – has produced an interesting parallel study of the two greatest French myths of power and authority.


Suzanne Franks
Head of journalism, City, University of London

In a famous TED talk Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlighted the “danger of the single story” in writing about Africa, in which we only ever hear a stereotyped narrative of “Afro-pessimism” – a grim cycle of poverty and conflict. Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me (Canongate) is a remarkable novel by a talented young Nigerian writer which offers a welcome antidote to the single story. It paints a rich, nuanced and genuinely three-dimensional view of the central character Yejide, as her family struggles with infertility. It is funny, sad, modern, traditional, complicated and full of the domestic tensions we all face. I am keenly anticipating Edward Stourton’s Auntie’s War: The BBC during the Second World War (Doubleday). This was a critical turning point in the evolution of the corporation as a mainstay of British life. Since I used to work at the BBC and retain a fascination with its history, I am sure it will be a gripping read.


Tracey Hill
Professor of early modern literature and culture, Bath Spa University

Theatre history is so energised at present that it is quite hard to keep up. The latest, 45th volume of Shakespeare Studies (Associated University Presses) is full of fresh insights by emerging and established scholars into playhouses, playing companies, playbooks and playgoers. To acquaint yourself with the latest thinking about Renaissance drama, head straight for it. Taking a more modern perspective on the 16th century, I wish I could confidently anticipate being able to lose myself in Hilary Mantel’s much-anticipated The Mirror and the Light , but it looks unlikely that we will get to enjoy Cromwell’s fall before 2019. Perhaps I will return to Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate) to relive her extraordinary, immersive recreation of a world of fear and danger.


Bishop
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Nick Hillman
Director, Higher Education Policy Institute

Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing: 
A Family’s Story (Harvill Secker) is a true account of the death of a nine-year-old boy – and his family’s almost unbelievable but completely unsuccessful attempts to forget all about it. The book covers the nature of tragedy and the tricks memory can play. It is written in a searingly honest way and is quite unlike any other book I’ve ever read. My first published academic research focused on right-wing attitudes towards migration and particularly on Enoch Powell. His worldview of a UK protecting its sovereignty by standing alone outside the EU has been especially topical since the referendum. So, in 2018, I am looking forward to reading the first major new biography for 20 years. Called Enoch Powell: The Outsider (I. B. Tauris), it has been written by David Clarke Shiels, a Cambridge-based researcher.


Aniko Horvath
Research associate, Centre for Global Higher Education, UCL

How does the Swedish tax authority manage to maintain a high level of willingness to be taxed in a country where people have among the highest income tax rates in the world? In Shaping Taxpayers: Values in Action at the Swedish Tax Agency (Berghahn Books), the anthropologist Lotta Björklund Larsen explores these issues in depth. In light of the recent Paradise Papers revelations, this is a must-read for all who want to engage with debates on taxation and avoidance. The excellent third novel by the award-winning Hungarian author Gyorgy Dragoman, The Bone Fire (Mariner Books), takes readers to Romania. The teenage protagonist, Emma, who loses her parents in a car accident just as the country’s dictatorship crumbles, is left on her own to decipher the traumatic changes in her environment. A grippingly written narrative takes us through her stages of grief, her understandings of oppression, violence and freedom, offering not only an image of those turbulent times, but also a powerful metaphor for our world’s current social woes.


Fred Inglis
Honorary professor of cultural history, University of Warwick

Although I am no kind of professional economist, I have been much gripped by Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? (Verso), a collection of eschatological essays striking for its plain, pure prose, its level, unapocalyptic manner and the overwhelming likelihood of its prophecies. He plots and deplores the shift from a redistributive to a neoliberal state, pleads for the EU to put democracy above capitalism, and ends with a ringing endorsement of the public mission of sociology. It should be a set book for our illiterate Cabinet. After Streeck it will be a happy release to vanish for Christmas into John Banville’s Mrs Osmond (Viking), his sequel to Henry James’ mighty classic, Portrait of a Lady. One can be certain that Banville’s splendid prose and plotting will match that of his great predecessor, while devoutly hoping that he will rescue Isabel Archer from the deep, intelligent unhappiness in which she ended at James’ hands.


Chinese muslims
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Islam Issa
Senior lecturer in English literature, Birmingham City University

In a field dominated by convention, Ewan Fernie’s Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter (Cambridge University Press) asks, refreshingly, “What good is Shakespeare?” – before providing an energetic answer: “Shakespeare means freedom”. The book uses real and varied examples to politicise a cultural debate. The result is a pertinent Shakespearean canon that is far from neutral. But Fernie’s largely Eurocentric examples led me to want to explore such studies as Matthew S. Erie’s China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law (Cambridge University Press). I was in Jerusalem in November and descended into the Well of Souls (aka the Holy of Holies), the foundation cave under the Dome of the Rock. Standing there was a group of Chinese Muslims telling a flabbergasted local that there are “at least 80 million” Muslims in China (official figures are around a third of that). Overhearing them reminded me why Erie’s ethnographic account of this significant yet unfamiliar group is on my to-read list.


Joanna Lewis
Associate professor of international history, London School of Economics

Charles Van Onselen’s The Cowboy Capitalist: John Hays Hammond, the American West and the Jameson Raid (Jonathan Ball Publishers) had it all for me. It is set in Africa in the late 19th century and is packed with men behaving very badly (especially American ones). If that wasn’t enough, it turned upside down what we know about the Jameson Raid and the final stage of the deadly Scramble for Africa. Through meticulous detail and fine scholarship, the full responsibility of global capitalism – rather than just the usual British rogues – has been exposed. I can’t wait to read Philip Murphy’s new book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth (Hurst). Mercurial, maverick and mischievous, he writes as an outsider-insider, having been head of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies for a number of years. This is going to shake the tree. And about time.


Books of the year 2017: part two

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