At Redland Green as well as being a history teacher I am also the Literacy Coordinator for the whole school (something that may surprise a few of you given my grammar and spelling on this site). As Literacy Coordinator I’ve led a big push on making it visual that as a school we are a community of readers. Staff and students have added a “I am currently reading…” signature to their emails. We’ve got signs on our doors which do the same thing and a big display in the stairwells.
I am very keen reader, so I thought I should practice what I preach and share what I’ve been reading this summer. I read both fiction and non fiction so the list is funnily enough a selection of both. Without further a do:
Richard Evans – Altered Pasts
I hate counter factual history when it’s attempted in an academic non fiction way. Therefore when Richard Evans came to Bristol to discuss his attack of counter factual history at the Festival of Ideas I jumped at the chance. The talk was superb, as you’d expect from Evans, and the book is just as good. Essentially written scripts from a number of lectures he delivered, this is easy to read and thought provoking. Plus it berates the right-wing so always amusing.
Philip Roth – The Plot Against America
OK I said I hate non fiction counter factual history, but I have a guilty pleasure for counter factual fiction. At the Evans lecture he recommended this and the next book. This one is a ‘What If’ FDR was defeated in 1940 and instead Charles Lindbergh became president. Lindbergh was famously anti semitic and the book follows the trials and tribulations of a Jewish family in New Jersey. It’s gripping and hugely entertaining.
Timur Vermes – Look Who’s Back
It’s summer 2011 and Adolf Hitler wakes up in a car park in Berlin. Walking into the city people believe that Adolf is an impersonator and soon he is given his own comedy show.
Genuinely I couldn’t make up a more ridiculous scenario. This book has been a bestseller in Germany. In parts it’s very funny and very close to the wire. But after a bit the joke wears a bit thin and it all feels a bit repetitive. It’s short though and silly and I still enjoyed it.
Bernard Cornwell – Sharpe’s Waterloo
It’s the 200th anniversary of Waterloo this year and earlier in the year I realised I knew nothing about it. Not anything more than it involved Napoleon and Wellington and was fought somewhere in Belgium. It was the end of term and I didn’t want a non fiction book so I read this. It’s typical Sharpe. Gritty, fun and violent. Plus having done a lot more reading about Waterloo since surprisingly accurate. An easy way to find out more.
Richard Holmes – Wellington: The Iron Duke
Following Sharpe I thought I should read an actual history book. Holmes’ biography of Arthur Wellesley is magnificent. A cracking narrative that doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae and delivers all the salient points you need to know. I’ll put my hands up, I knew none of this. Wellington was involved in Empire (in India), the Napoleonic Wars, the fight for electoral change, Queen Victoria. A man who truly summed up his age. Why no one teaches Wellington’s life as a scheme of work dumbfounds me, it would be amazing.
C J Sansom – Dissolution
I enjoyed Sansom’s Dominion earlier in the year so I thought I’d give his Shardlake series a go. Plus I love a bit of Cromwell. In places it’s a bit ridiculous but I was gripped from start to finish and I couldn’t guess who the murderer was so I suppose it served his purpose as a crime novel. It’s not as good as Dominion but it does have a wondrously evil Cromwell.
Eamonn Duffy – Voices of Morebath
I was recommended to read this and I wasn’t let down. This is easily the best non fiction history book I’ve read this summer. It follows the narrative of Sir Christopher Trickey, the parish priest of Morebath, a village in Somerset from the 1520s to the 1570s. Trickey left incredibly detailed accounts of the ups and downs of Morebath during the religious changes of the Tudor monarchs and Duffy weaves these together in an engaging story. I’ll be honest I’ve tried to read Stripping the Altars a few times and found it too dry and too heavy. This is the opposite. It’s genuinely brilliant. The first two chapters set the scene and can be a bit dull. However, beyond this as Duffy really gets into the story it’s fantastic to the end.
Lucy Hughes-Hallet – The Pike: Gabrielle D’Annunzio
The Pike won the Samuel Johnson prize for non fiction this year and I always try to read the winner (Wade Davis’ Into the Silence is probably my favourite book of last year) so I thought I’d give it a go. I know very little Italian history (I keep admitting my lack of knowledge in this post – whoops) and had not heard of D’Annunzio before. If you are like me, D’Annunzio was a poet, a rampant womanizer and ardent nationalist. Mussolini said he was the John the Baptist of fascism. I haven’t finished the book yet but you can see why it won the prize. It’s very good and written expertly. My only problem is that D’Annunzio is particularly horrid so I’ve found it difficult to get into.
Paul Kingsnorth – The Wake
If Voices of Morebath is my favourite non fiction book this year, The Wake is easily my favourite fiction book and I’m only a third of the way through. I read that a historical fiction book about reactions to the Norman invasion in 1066 had been longlisted for the Man Booker prize and instantly purchased it on my Kindle (it’s only a few quid at the time of writing). What I didn’t know then is that the book is written in what Kingsnorth calls ‘shadow tongue‘, his own version of Old English to really make you feel like you are in Anglo Saxon England. Here’s a little excerpt, a particularly gritty bit!
At first this makes for a VERY challenging read….. but after a while you get into it and now I can read it as quickly as any other book. Plus it’s a literary technique that works. It feels very real and has great sense of period. The narrative itself is also excellent. It’s a very dark read but is full of action and Saxon mythology. Give it a go. It’s clearly going to be a Marmite book but I haven’t enjoyed a fiction book this much for a while and haven’t been able to put it down.
I hope if you enjoyed this post you might do something similar or share your reading recommendations below. I always want new ideas for what to read next.