Tutors offer their suggestions for your holiday reading.
Lily pond in the snow, University of Oxford Botanic Garden
By Olivia Gordon
Reverend Prof. William Whyte, Tutorial Fellow in History
‘In Oxford, at any rate, concrete buildings are still not loved. Every college has one – and sometimes two or three – which students like to sneer at. They rarely make it into prospectuses, which are filled with honey-coloured stone, not slate-grey roughcast. In the historian Barnabus Calder’s marvelous Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (William Heinemann), he tries to persuade us to love the architecture of the 1960s. Not just wonderfully well-researched and beautifully well-written, it’s also the story of a conversion, as Calder himself comes to value buildings he, too, once disliked. St Catherine's College, a symphony in glass and concrete by the Cherwell
‘Three years ago Caroline Shenton won every prize going for her history of how, in 1834, Parliament burnt down. In the splendid sequel Mr Barry’s War (OUP), she explores the long and bitter battles which attended the process of building a new Palace of Westminster. Everything that could go wrong did. The result was a series of scandals and struggles – and the most extraordinary building. As Parliament now visibly decays, and plans are made to preserve it, this is a book that has contemporary relevance as well as being a super story.’
Dr Imaobong Umoren, Career Development Fellow in Women in the Humanities
‘Over Christmas, I look forward to having time to read as many novels as I can. But there are three on the top of my list. The first is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (Knopf), a searing novel about the impact of transatlantic slavery in Ghana, the Caribbean, and the US. It is told through the story of two half sisters Effia and Esi and their descendants’ experiences of war, British colonisation, slavery, the Civil War, and the Great Migration over the course of three hundred years.
‘The second novel I hope to read is Another Brooklyn (Amistad), penned by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson. Set in the 1970s, it traces the lives of four young girls - August, Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela - as they navigate their friendship in Brooklyn and transition into adulthood amid the backdrop of their relationships with older men and their parents, among others.
I also can’t wait to get my hands on Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton), which moves between North West London and West Africa and narrates the lives of two mixed-race dancers.’
Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian
‘If you want something Russian to suit the usual Christmas mood, you have to look back a few decades: Nabokov's Speak, Memory, perhaps, with its secret adolescent love ('we walked under the white lacery of berimed avenues'), or E. M. Almedingen's I Remember St Petersburg, which recalls youth in a much less opulent part of the city, where trees had to be haggled for, but were decorated with 'tiny sedan chairs, violins, bears, monkeys and fishes in silver foil and in gold, minute tin candlesticks tulip-shaped and painted all the colours of the rainbow, and a gilt star for the top'. The current fashion is for darker books, though. A particularly distinguished example is Daniel Beer's The House of the Dead (Allen Lane), a searing indictment of the penal exile system in Siberia; the labour camps were supposed to be economic engines, but they created chaos and social anomie.
The writer Nadezhda Teffi (above) had no taste for Christmas stories, which she mercilessly parodied, and her memoirs (now translated by Robert Chandler and others as Memories - From Moscow to the Black Sea, Pushkin Press) mirror the terror and bloodshed of the Russian Civil War with an unsparing eye and an unsettling quotient of black humour. If you tire of forced jollity at Christmas, they are for you.’
Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography
‘If you thought you got to Oxford on merit rather than largely through luck - think again. If you thought that what happened to you since as been mostly due to your own hard work, or lack of it - think again. In Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy (Princeton University Press), Robert Frank, one of the leading economists of the modern USA, explains in a lighthearted but extremely readable and entertaining way why luck got most of us to where we are and are not, and what we should do because of that - how to give others a little more luck and consideration, and a little less admiration.’
Charles Foster, Senior Research Associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Lecturer in Medical Law and Ethics
‘First Light, edited by Erica Wagner (Unbound), is a collection of essays about the great Alan Garner (right), who understands better than anyone how memory is stored in landscapes and objects, and how it can seep out and be re-embodied.
‘In Beast by Paul Kingsnorth (Faber), a savage creature crouches outside a moorland house. It might be the land itself.
‘Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton) is a desolate, ecstatic, desperately brave and poignantly scholarly memoir of madness. More an organism than a book, like all Griffiths’ work.’
Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics
‘In A Life Discarded (Fourth Estate), Alexander Masters has created a fascinating genre of biographies of ordinary people. His first book, Stuart: A Life Backwards, was on my shortlist when I judged the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. This latest book is his best yet. Following the discovery of 148 tattered diaries discarded in a tip, Masters attempts to uncover the identity and real history of their author, with an astounding final revelation. I love his point that an alien visiting earth would be better placed to read this biography to understand human existence than the biographies of all the exceptional people that are on the shelves in the bookshops.’
Patricia Daley, Professor of the Human Geography of Africa
‘In the novel Augustown (Orion), Kei Miller writes beautifully in the language of my early childhood, pulling me in to a mystical storyline that deals with memory, prejudice, and resistance in a slum community in Kingston, Jamaica.
‘City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, by Ben Rawlence (Portobello), is a welcome journalistic addition to my research field. By retelling the lived experience of those forced to flee their homes to Dadaad – the largest refugee camp in the world - Rawlence asserts the refugees’ humanity, as he introduces us to their often dire material conditions, as well as their fears, desires, and aspirations.’
Prof. David Greaves, Tutor in Medicine
‘It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. By the same token it can be argued that extensive knowledge of a serious topic, such as cancer biology, brings its own unique challenges. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Bodley Head) is a remarkable autobiography written by a young neurosurgeon in training. During investigation of an episode of chronic fatigue, magnetic resonance imaging reveals stage 4 lung cancer and multiple metastases. Despite knowing the exact DNA sequence of his tumour, the use of the latest anti-cancer drugs, and an oncologist who discusses every clinical test result and involves him in every clinical decision, Paul dies at the age of 37. In this 114-page document, Paul writes about his childhood, his love of literature and the importance of family, informed by his own medical training and the knowledge of his impending demise. This book is about so much more than medicine and is thought-provoking on many different levels.
‘I also greatly enjoyed reading James Robertson’s 7th novel, To be Continued (Hamish Hamilton). The novel’s protagonist, Douglas Findhorn Elder (Findhorn is the name of a Scottish river), is turning 50, has split up with his partner, has lost his job at an ailing Edinburgh newspaper and has a father recently admitted to a care home with dementia. One evening he makes a new friend – Mungo, a talking toad. Mungo turns out to be a font of Bufodian wisdom on a wide range of topics relating to the natural world and the human condition. In a glorious surreal romp, Douglas and Mungo set out on an adventure-packed trip around the Scottish Highlands.
One hopes that James Robertson has been able to sell the film rights to this book. A good cinematic adaptation of To be Continued will surely make for the ultimate man-meets-toad road movie.’
Dr Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer in Renaissance Literature
‘I recommend Robert Harris’s Conclave (Hutchinson) which, although not as substantial as his excellent An Officer and a Spy, is an addictively atmospheric evocation of a secret world - in this case, the election of a new Pope by the College of Cardinals. The book is set in the near future and its protagonist is Cardinal Lomeli, an attractive, conflicted-yet-upright figure. As the election progresses, Lomeli begins to discern that events are unfolding according to the will not so much of the Holy Spirit as of the recently deceased Pope... There are one or two occasions when the plot takes precedence over canon law but - for this reader at least - these did not interfere with the yet another entertaining and suspenseful read from Harris.
‘Remaining with theological subjects, I also recommend Stephen Cherry’s The Dark Side of the Soul: An Insider’s Guide to the Web of Sin (Bloomsbury). This is a self-help book with a little more bite than usual. In an age obsessed with other people’s iniquities, this book gently encourages its readers towards a more nuanced awareness of their own failings (it is not a handy stocking filler). Despite the title, it is also not a dissection of evil, but a consideration of how ignoring venial, everyday sins – or, conversely, becoming obsessively concerned with them in an over-rigorous perfectionism - mitigates against enjoying life in all its abundance. It is a helpful, pastoral guide to acknowledging one’s own sinfulness, whilst accepting that sinfulness as part of the human condition.’
Images © Oxford University Images, Penguin Random House