As has become traditional, our last post of the academic year features LSE staff talking about books. This time, in recognition of the launch earlier this year of the LSE Strategy 2020 and the LSE Education Strategy 2015-2020, Jane Hindle asked some of LSE’s leaders to share their recommendations.
Julia Black, Pro-Director Research
Earlier this year I finished the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015)). I’ve read each book as it came out, so the trilogy has been with me for some time. Set in the period leading up to the first Opium War (1839-42), the series is named after the ship, the Ibis, which transported both opium and slaves from India to China. There is a cast of characters ranging from the heights of Indian and English colonial society to those working in the opium fields in India and the boatpeople of Canton. The trilogy focuses on different characters in each book, though some are better drawn than others, and there is an attempt to bring most of them together in the final stages of Flood of Fire, as the first Opium War gets underway. The books are rich in descriptive detail, and characters speak in a range of local dialects, creating a vivid picture of sections of colonial, military and mercantile societies in India and Canton in the mid nineteenth century. The portrayal of the polyglot, bustling trading post of Canton in River of Smoke is particularly evocative. It is difficult to sustain suspense over such a long trilogy, particularly if read over a number of years, and some of the devices used to link characters or explore different parts of India, China and Canton are a little contrived, but together the books create a wonderfully rich depiction of this particular period of colonial history.
In complete contrast, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is a funny, fast paced story of sisters who run the family filling station on the death of their father. They turn to flying and some become pilots for the US Air Force in the Second World War. Needless to say it took decades for the US to acknowledge the role that women pilots played in flying military planes between bases in the US during the war, and they were kicked out of their jobs when the ‘boys came home’. But the book is a multi-generational story of love, determination, excitement, loss and identity – and hugely entertaining.
Paul Kelly, Pro-Director Teaching and Learning
This summer I will mostly be reading Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs by Graham Johnson. Pretentious? I read Ian Bostridge’s wonderful Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession last year and became hooked on Schubert’s songs and everything about them. Johnson’s huge study covers absolutely everything from history and politics to musicology and it is a wonderful piece of scholarship. The three massive volumes – nearly 3,000 pages in total and I am a slow ponderous reader (fortunately there are pictures) – are a labour of love by a brilliant scholar and musician. The beautiful boxed set from Yale UP was a gift and has been staring at me across my desk. They are not exactly beach reading but they are a great read: I’m looking forward to the challenge.
I am also going to finish David Wootton’s The Invention of Science, a fantastic example of intellectual history with a purpose. I have already started this but put it aside until the summer proper. Even the familiar becomes strange: a good example is the history of the invention of the fact.
Finally, a great teacher of mine said that for every new book you read you should re-read an old book. I intend to go back to a seriously old book, K’ung Shang-Jen’s The Peach Blossom Fan (in translation; unfortunately I don’t have Mandarin) reissued by NYRB books. This 40 scene play is about everything that is important and is a classic that should be known more widely in the west. All this should take me to October but if I finish early there is always the guilty pleasure of another Game of Thrones novel. I won’t admit how many I have read but …
Eric Neumayer, Vice-Chair of the Appointments Committee
I am almost through Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women. It is an incredibly well written tale of slavery and resistance to slavery in Jamaica toward the end of the eighteenth century, told from the perspective of women slaves who conspire in the plotting of a revolt. I highly recommend this novel, from which I learned more about what slavery is than any history book will ever manage to, and very much look forward to reading his Booker-prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings over the summer. This latest book of this Jamaican writer spans about thirty years from 1976 onwards, following the events of a murderous attack by seven gunmen on Bob Marley’s house.
I can’t resist recommending one other book even if it was published back in 2012 already. Pulitzer-prize winning author Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers provides a devastating account of ‘Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum’, as the subtitle says. It’s officially a non-fiction book though I’d call it semi-fiction at the very least (it reads like a novel). I must have read thousands of novels. I’ve never read anything as haunting that stayed with me for many weeks after I finished reading it, so much so that I still recommend it in 2016.
Our thanks to Professors Julia Black, Paul Kelly and Eric Neumayer for these wonderful recommendations and our very best wishes to all our readers for good and restorative breaks. We look forward to your company again in September.