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World Book Day: what the Library has been reading

3 March 2021

Our library team have continued to provide a service to users – responding to enquiries by email, scanning articles, and facilitating access to e-resources – since the first lockdown, whether working from home or (one at a time) in the reading rooms. In this follow-up to the first lockdown book recommendations, Sarah, Dom, Matt, and Tessa share their suggestions for some extra-curricular reading (and watching) during the forthcoming Easter Vacation.

Sarah Arkle

It seems the longer we experience varying degrees of lockdown the more my brain becomes entirely unable to consume anything beyond comforting repeats of familiar favourites – a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the brilliant sitcom Community. Reading has been a casualty here, and I must confess that this time around it’s been a struggle to even slightly emulate the voracity with which I read during the first lockdown. That being said, I was given a copy of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women for Christmas, and I devoured it. One of the most striking works of non-fiction I have ever read, I found myself wanting to simultaneously hug but also scream at the women of the title. Beyond that, another friend also passed on a copy of Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet – translated by our very own Charlie Louth. In that I have found hope, hope for my current period of ‘wintering’ to find an end and allow me to enjoy some more challenging hobbies again, as well as hope for the easing of lockdown and the return to something a little more like ‘normal’. In Rilke’s words ‘a tree…stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come…patience is all!’

Dominic Hewett

One book I’ve enjoyed reading during this lockdown is The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair, a lively, wide-ranging history of fabric and textiles. Chronological in approach, it covers subjects as varied as linen in Ancient Egypt, cotton in colonial America, and the development of synthetics in the twentieth century. Near the end there’s a particularly good chapter on spacesuits.

I’m currently reading The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene. Having binge-watched all 201 episodes of the ‘U.S. Office’ during lockdown, I will probably soon have had enough of Scranton, Pennsylvania, but not yet. Many of the most interesting parts of Greene’s oral history come from the candid interviews with people who are usually out of the limelight, from the hair and makeup artists to extras and camera crew.

Next on my to-read list is C.L.R. James’ 1936 novel Minty Alley, republished this year by Penguin as part of their ‘Black Britain: Writing Back’ series spearheaded by Bernadine Evaristo. James’ masterpiece Beyond a Boundary– a hybrid of cricket writing, autobiography, and Caribbean social history – is one of my all-time favourite books, so I’m looking forward to reading his only novel.

Matthew Shaw

We have hit the dinosaur phase of child-rearing, and our son is now obsessed with developing his own CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology and combining a tree-frog with a peregrine falcon in an ill-judged attempt to reforge a Jurassic Park-inspired velociraptor. Still, life, uh, finds a way, and we have turned to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) as bedtime reading. Conan Doyle’s favourite book (he had a habit of dressing up as the pugilistic Prof. Challenger - the book offers something of a satire on the world of learning), takes us away from all this on an adventurous hunt for evidential pterodactyls in South America. While its period approach to Darwinism and colonialism offers plenty of what be termed teachable moments, it also provides, as the preface states, plenty of escapist fun, ‘To the boy who's half a man/Or the man who's half a boy’.

More grown-up fare can be found in Fleishman Is in Trouble, the 2020 debut from the New Jersey journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Be warned: it is rather rude. But from the jarring use of the pronoun ‘me’ that jumps out on page four to the bouleversement at the back of the book, she reboots the Great American Novel in what is likely to be one or two febrile reads. A wise and funny escape from lockdown and the trajectory of the last couple of decades. (Brodesser-Akner has also reprised the main character in a covid short story for the New York Magazine.)

The writer Jan Morris died in November. If you haven’t read Oxford (ideally in the 1978 edition) then now is a good time. Travel literature has perhaps faded as a bookselling phenomenon, but then this isn’t really a travelogue, but a compassionate biography of place and a crash course in prose style. It’s also very good on libraries.

Tessa Shaw

These reads (and an extended watch) broke the blur of winter lockdown days all too often characterised by mud, long evenings, and furred up brain cells. 

What I Was: Meg Rosoff was a lockdown find for me but turns out she is well known (very) for her teen/adult novels. In brief – a centenarian Hilary looks back at his 16-year-old self as he is dumped by his father at a fog shrouded St Oswald’s public school (his third), near the Suffolk coast. Hilary quickly realises that the rock bottom standards of the school will make it difficult to achieve expulsion, his normal route out. It is 1962. Rossoff takes us into a space between the land and sea which is occupied by Finn, an androgynous loner who lives in a shed with a cat. Finn’s entire existence represents everything for Hilary that he is not. The novel is about gender identity, sexuality, landscapes – what it is to fear, what it is to desire, the nature of innocence. Hilary describes himself as the ‘beating heart in a coal scuttle’- which resonated with lockdown.  It’s also very funny and surprising. 

For recipes (and a political commentary) across three decades, including a section on studying at Oxford as a Ugandan Asian in the mid-70s try The Settler’s Cookbook – a memoir of love, migration and food by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.  A personal history explored through recipes which are placed in her story with warmth, affection, humour and relevance.  They range from spicy Indian inspired dishes, the dubious – ‘Malai on bread’ – milk, sugar and soft white bread – not finished until ‘a thickish skin forms’ – it ‘peps up a bad day’, I beg to differ on that one, through to the Humpty-Dumpty birthday cake, no spices  - created to help assimilate into family life in the UK. There are two versions of a Shepherd’s Pie, one with Bovril and one with lime, ginger, chillies, garam masala and coriander – which seemed to sum things up. 

It’s not a book – but has spurred me into reading to find out more, even though I am old enough to have lived through it - C4 series It’s a Sin - Russell T Davies, highly recommended – devoured like a gannet in one sitting. 

The New Library at The Queen's College