The summer is drawing to a close. For our friends in the USA, fall semesters are already starting up, and here in England I am busily preparing my materials for a September start to teaching. The weather, too, is turning, nights beginning to draw in, and the early morning air has a damp cool smell of encroaching autumn. But for our readers based in the UK there’s one more summer bank holiday weekend – a last hurrah for barbecues, beaches, and perhaps a book or two. We asked History Workshop journal and online editors what books they have particularly enjoyed over the summer, and share their responses here to give you some inspiration in compiling your own reading lists, whether you have a last-minute break planned, or you want to stock up for the autumn (or spring, for our southern hemisphere friends!). Happy reading.
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (2001) – beautiful novel about an architectural historian recounting his experience of being brought to Britain as part of the Kindertransport and growing up in Wales. The reader travels with Jacques Austerlitz through Belgium, Bloomsbury, Oxford, Prague, and Paris as he tries to piece together his life and family history. His architectural eye brings to life mid-twentieth Europe and modern day Paris as we blur through fact and fiction; biography and travelogue.
Chocky by John Wyndham (1968) – a small boy and his ‘imaginary friend’ allow Wyndham to explore childhood, family, civilisation, expertise, and humanity via Matthew’s increasingly sophisticated communications with an alien life-form… suburban sci-fi at its best.
Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Penguin, £20) is an ideal read for a lazy summer (or indeed autumn) afternoon. Part true crime thriller, part literary detective story, it recounts a truly staggering tale of multiple murders and insurance frauds in late twentieth century Alabama, a case that at once absorbed and eluded the novelist Harper Lee, who set out on a futile quest to transform its gothic dynamics into a book. Cep, a journalist with a novelist’s flair for narrative, weaves together her intersecting stories with drama and skill. The result is an unflaggingly fascinating tale of violence, corruption, and literary ambition.
Guy Guneratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (Headline, £6.99) is a riveting read, at once able to entertain and cast light on the social conditions of London. The book fictionalises the Lee Rigby murder, and confronts versions of ‘extremism’. Set in a council estate in North London, it moves at times with remarkable pace and at others slowly, through the ways in which young men think both the extreme and mundane. Having lived away from the capital for several months now after many years, the book, for me, was able to evoke a sense of nostalgia and longing. As a winner of the Jhalak Prize, an award to encourage BAME authors, the book (among many others) also signifies a slow shift in Britain’s publishing industry, making visible authors and perspectives outside white middle class backgrounds. Our Mad and Furious City will go down as a London classic.
Written by an anonymous Italian collective, Q (Einaudi, 1999) moves across the tumultuous landscape of sixteenth-century Reformation Europe. Part thriller, part revolutionary romp, the novel follows an Anabaptist radical and a Catholic spy in a game of cat and mouse that spans key moments of Reformation history – from Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses in Wittenberg to Thomas Müntzer’s peasant rebellion to the dystopian results of efforts to establish a “New Jerusalem” at Münster. Written as an experiment in collective fiction writing, the four authors divided chapters randomly between them and the book is freely available under “copyleft”. A cult classic, Q opens up the politics of religion at a time of profound change and crisis. In doing so, the authors (indirectly) reflect on belief and ideology, financial capital, intelligence services, and anarchist politics today.
In truth? I’m on my way to Warsaw for a working holiday. I’m taking Richard Evans’s thumping biography of Eric Hobsbawm, as I’ve promised to review it, though can’t be sure how much I’ll get through. (Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, Little, Brown, £35.) As an antidote I’ve packed a Jeeves & Wooster. I have never read a line of Wodehouse and I thought the time had come. Thanks, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Recommend? Julius Scott, The Common Wind. Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (Verso Books, £20). It tells a riveting story. Immensely learned and immensely readable. For some thirty years or more the manuscript has had a samizdat existence, passed from hand to hand. It is now available for all of us. It’s a revelation.
I’ve been re-reading Trollope’s Phineas Finn (1867) and its tale of how change does and doesn’t get made in Parliament—and of how central Ireland is to British politics—seems a suitable not-quite-distraction from the horrors of Brexit. I had forgotten how much it’s a story about gender politics: all the clever women who can’t enter politics directly, yet who accept and reject suitors for reasons that can only be called ‘political’! I had thought my rediscovery of Trollope was idiosyncratic, but apparently I am just part of the Zeitgeist; see Rohan Maitzen’s TLS essay, ‘Reading Trollope in the age of Trump‘.
Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices (Bloomsbury, £16.80) – crafted around the testimony of those now living in the UK who were caught up in the chaos which marred Britain’s pull-out from India in 1947 – is a powerful affirmation that Partition is part of Britain’s history, not some distant echo of the end of Empire. It is written with great compassion and arose from the author’s encounter with the story of her father who as a twelve-year-old in Punjab was himself embroiled in one of the greatest tragedies of a calamitous century.
Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel Gun Island (John Murray, £20.00) is not a historical novel in the conventional sense but is imbued throughout with a powerful, at times overwhelming, sense of the past. Ghosh draws parallels between the present and previous episodes of globalisation. The storyline focusses on two locations which at first glance have little in common – but they are linked now, and were centuries ago too: the low-lying Sunderbans mangrove forests in the Bay of Bengal and the city of Venice. Gun Island is an elegantly written novel with an explicit political message – that unless we address the intertwined issues of climate change and mass migration, our common future is bleak.
As for my own reading – after a summer celebrating my small child’s birthday, commemorating the loss of loved ones, and coughing my way through two colds, I have been thinking a good deal about embodiment. Mother: An Unconventional History (Penguin, £14.99) draws on historian Sarah Knott’s own experiences as a mother as well as on rich archival material from the seventeenth century through to the present day to construct a ‘history of maternity, verb-led’. I will be leading a discussion of the book on Storying the Past on 12 September: all are welcome to join in.