Monday, July 22, 2013

Summer Reading Round-up 3

I have invited some bloggers to nominate a couple of books they have enjoyed recently and write a few sentences about each. 

You are welcome to send me your own choices. I suggest you nominate one political and one non-political book, but I don’t insist on that.

You can read Round-up 1 and Round-up 2 on this blog.

Nick Barlow

1688: The First Modern Revolution by Steve Pincus

I've always thought that the Glorious Revolution and all the events that surrounded it are one of the most fascinating parts of British and world history, yet it's a period of history that's consistently ignored in our culture. There are plenty of novels, TV series and films covering the numerous Plantagenets and Tudors, but the struggle for the throne after the death of Charles II is relatively ignored.

Pincus's book is an attempt to place the events of 1688 in their proper context as a true revolution, comparable in scale to the events of the Civil Wars half a century earlier, or the tumultuous events in America and France that followed a century later. The traditional interpretation of 1688 is as an orderly event, where the nation chose one monarch over another, but Pincus explains not just how unlikely and unpredictable the chain of events that set William and Mary on the throne were, but how what happened in Britain and Ireland was intimately linked to the greater struggle for power in Europe, as an array of nations set out to check the power of Louis XIV.

It's a reminder that British history isn't the sedate progression of monarchs and battles that some like to present it as, but something much looser, wilder and part of a wider history, whose outcomes weren't inevitable. It's not just a good introduction to the history of the period, but a book that will make you look on our history differently.

Halting State and Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Some of the most interesting takes on our contemporary society are coming from modern British science fiction, and Stross has become one of the leading writers in that genre. These two books are near-future crime thrillers, sharing a setting and some characters, extrapolating some of our current technological and social trends a decade or so into the future. Stross looks at what it would be like to investigate a crime in a society where surveillance has become all pervasive, and everything a police office does is recorded through Google Glass-like technology. More importantly, he speculates on just what crime will become in a world that's increasingly globalised and virtual - how does a local police force investigate a crime that's taken place in a game world?

Stross' future is one that feels both plausible and strange, where elements recognisable to us sit alongside technologies that are currently bleeding edge, but have become commonplace by the time the books are set. He's a writer who loves to speculate - see his blog for much more - but knows how to place that speculation within the lives of real characters.

Both books use the interesting technique of being narrated in the second person across multiple characters, but Stross has the talent to make it work and the style works perfectly with the subject of the books. Computer games are often narrated in the same tone, so why shouldn't a book in which they're central to the plot be narrated the same way? Stross creates novels that entertain you with their plot, but also make you think about just where we're heading and whether we can do anything about it.

Nick Barlow blogs at What You Can Get Away With. Follow him on Twitter.

Iain Brodie Browne

A note has arrived from Bonkers Hall: what am I reading this summer?

Our Victorian forebears marketed Southport as being on the Lancashire Rivera and for once it is living up to their billing. It is hot. If I were off to Birkdale beach cycling along Snuttering Lane what would be stuffed into my saddlebag today? In truth there would be nothing too demanding. Jonathan suggested I choose two books one political and one not.

First up is David Erdal's "Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working". This book is a passionate, committed work advocating workers' ownership. It challenges traditional models of ownership and lays out the experience of those who, like Erdal himself, took the road less travelled by. His own family firm -a paper mill in Fife-was transferred to employee ownership and it has flourished in contrast to a similar company which  took the usual route recommended by banks and business advisers and was sold off to venture capitalists. Erdal takes a hard look at those who insist, in the teeth of the evidence, that shared ownership will never work - a sorry tale, he argues, of prejudice masquerading as economic thinking. Here are other case studies of firms familiar to Liberals: Scott Bader, John Lewis and the mighty Mondargon co-ops.

Jo Grimond visited Mondargon along with journalist, and sometime Liberal candidate, Robert Oakeshott . On their return they established, what is today, the Employee Ownership Association. Jo was particularly enamoured with the local workers mutual bank that the co-ops established. It attracted savings from the region and has financed a network of worker owned enterprises which now have 100,00 employees. As one reviewer observed that the greatest success of this approach was ' the sheer happiness employees experience in working together in businesses that they own together, sharing the wealth that they create'. 
You can hear an audio clip of Erdal talking about the book online.

 It is Sunday, the shadows are lengthening, and the evening has come, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done. The worshipers at St Asquith's are hurrying home after Evensong. Revd Hughes has detained them far too long preaching on Martha and Mary and the systemic effects of patriarchal stereotyping (in a sermon he pinched off the internet).  The strains of King Charles I's Evening hymn  linger more lastingly in their memory. Why do they rush home? It is because Sunday is the day that the next instalment of Acts and Omissions comes online.

Let me explain. Catherine Fox has been blogging a novel, one chapter a week, rather like Dickens or Wilkie Collins, since the turn of the year, and believe me the cliff hangers at the end of some chapters rival the fate of Little Nell. Every Sunday night they enter the diocese of Lindchester, a world as completely imagined as Bonkers Hall. There they meet the outrageous Freddie May with his gorgeous tenor voice who is unsettling the conscience of the evangelical Bishop Paul -and not just because of what he has painted above Father Wendy's new curate, Miss Virginia Farrow-Ball’s bed…. Bishop Paul will be please to see Freddie take up his choral scholarship at Barchester Cathedral, although I'm not so sure the elderly spinster Miss Barbara Blatherwick will be so relieved. This is a place where clerics drank champagne to celebrate the passing of the Equal Marriage Act but where Gene, the Dean's husband, is not prepared to deviate from the law that you don’t waste vintage champagne on evangelicals. 

It is a glorious, exuberant romp of a novel. Whether you identify with the militantly lapsed Dr Jane Rossiter or the tortured soul of Father Dominic, by the time chapter 52 arrives and Freddie has takes his last scandalous risk the recollection of the heat wave will have faded and I shall be most likely be cycling along Snuttering Lane in the snow.

Iain Brodie Browne blogs at Birkdale Focus. Follow him on Twitter.

Tim Holyoake

Nick Hornby's protagonist in "High Fidelity" is asked by a reporter to name his five favourite records of all time and then spends days agonising about his choices. As I appear to have many of the same personality quirks, I've found it just as difficult to pick out just two books from my summer reading list. I've also been worrying that the ones I've chosen might somehow be the wrong ones!

Anyway, neatly straddling my interest in politics and psychology is Steve Reicher and Cliff Stott's e-book "Mad Mobs and Englishmen?" This examines the 2011 riots and questions many of instant explanations provided by politicians of all parties at the time. Reicher and Stott argue that the only way to prevent future riots is to go beyond the easy consensus of the cause being feral youth out of control. It’s a challenging read and has, unusually for an academic work of this type, been dramatised by the Worklight Theatre Company.

 My second choice is J.G. Farrell’s "A Girl in the Head". The action unfolds around a rather dismal English seaside town over an August Bank Holiday weekend, which sees anti-hero Boris Slattery wondering whether his life has just been “a meaningless detail rapidly receding into a mass of other meaningless details”. It’s a funny, touching and ultimately tragic novel which shows glimpses of the genius Farrell was becoming prior to writing his Booker Prize winning novel "The Siege of Krishnapur".

Tim Holyoake blogs at Just One More Ten Pence Piece. Follow him on Twitter.

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