Summer Reading

Frustrated by online searches for new books to read in the garden (no way am I going near a Spanish beach this summer!) I looked through my own collection and picked the ones listed below. I’m sure many of you will have read some of them, but I hope one or two might tickle your fancy.

The Doll Factory is set in London, 1850, the year of the Great Exhibition. This is Victorian London, a truly awful place for most of its inhabitants. It tells the story of Iris, struggling to survive, an aspiring artist who meets a member of the Pre-Raphaelite group and agrees to model for him. Silas, a Dickensian bad guy if ever there was one, is the spanner in the works. It’s a great story and it’s beautifully written. Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, describes it as “A sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art and delusion”. I bought it at an airport without much expectation and was blown away by the opening pages that draw you in to a wonderfully described environment and its main characters. A superb debut novel.     

There are five novels in Edward St. Auybyn’s Patrick Melrose series. I read the first one, Never Mind, when it came out and just couldn’t believe that anyone could write so well – it’s a masterpiece. Nobody else writes like this, St. Aubyn has to be one of the greatest stylists in the English language. St. Aubyn says that he wrote the novels as an act of investigative self-repair. The first novel tells of how, as a child, he was repeatedly sexually abused by his father while his mother turned a blind eye. This harrowing tale is told with quite extraordinary style; it is, IMHO, an unrivalled tour de force of literary elegance, sparkling in its wit and intelligence. The rest of the series recount his father’s death, his loss of the huge family fortunes, and his eventual “redemption”. Hide the drugs while you read; if you felt hungry reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, you’ll be sorely tempted to indulge in illicit substances while reading this. The books were recently made into a tv series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick. Fantastic as Cumberbatch’s acting is, you really must read the books.

Gomptertz’ What Are You Looking At? gives a tremendously enjoyable history of modern art. It’s easy to read, mercifully free of all the precious, obscurantist stuff that art critics are famous for, and it tells its story with terrific anecdotes and illustrations. Highly recommended.

Russell’s Bird lives is the best biography I’ve ever read (Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, and Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay, come close). It’s the biography of Charlie Parker and if you like jazz, you’ve almost certainly read it. It swings! Here’s one review:

“One of the very few jazz books that deserve to be called literature . . . perhaps the finest writing on jazz to be found anywhere. . . . Russell knows a lot about music, has a novelist’s eye for detail and a phonographic ear for jazz speech, and he swings a clean sports reporter’s style. He has poured these gifts into what must be the most exhaustively researched biography on a jazz musician ever published and miraculously catches the feel of a jazz performance, that impossible fusion of spontaneous freedom and total discipline. Those aware of Parker’s genius cannot do without this book.”  Grover Sales, Saturday Review

Greger’s How not to die is a must read. As someone who’s dedicated much of his life to drug abuse (not that I’ve ever got close to Edward St. Auybyn’s), I’m an unlikely fan of a book dedicated to clean living. But Greger doesn’t preach or tell you off – he just gives you facts about the damage modern meat and dairy produce do to us, and recommends that we adopt a vegan diet. The argument is compelling. Quite apart from how much we suffer, it’s evident that the planet we live on suffers even more than we do from our reliance on meat and dairy products. In our house now, we eat a small fraction of the meat and dairy stuff we used to: most of what we eat is unprocessed fruit and veg. “Stay away from processed foods” is the number one take away (geddit!). Yes, I know: beer, wine, vodka, cocaine, heroin and speed are all processed. I want to change to opium, but you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find.    

Stevick’s A Way and Ways is well described and commented on by Scott Thornbury in his S is for (Earl) Stevick post. The book looks at various innovative ways of doing ELT that were emerging at that time. It changed my life. It didn’t stop the drug abuse, but it stopped me teaching in the prescribed fashion that dominated ELT in the late 1970s and that now, in the 2020s, again dominates. Stevick was a key player in breaking the mold and ushering in a golden, alas, short-lived, era of CLT.  My good friend Mike Long (how we all miss him) used to get quickly riled up when I praised Stevick, and I now appreciate his concerns, but nevertheless, back in the early 1980s, Stevick was one of my gurus (Henry Widdowson – another of Mike Long’s bete noires – was another). When I worked at ESADE Idiomas in Barcelona, Earl was a regular visitor and I fondly remember hosting a lunch for Earl at our house in 1989. About a dozen of us sat around the table outside, shooting the breeze with one of the most charming and persuasive educationalists we’d ever meet. I’m going to spoil this now, but I can’t resist recounting what Earl said at that lunch. “Being quizzed by Geoff is like going to the dentist – it hurts, but it’s good for you”. Well, it got a laugh, and added a bit of spice, as if it were needed, to a lovely encounter with the great man. It’s never too late to read Stevick’s stuff for yourself. A Way and Ways is on my desk now, ready for its umpteenth reading this summer.       

Finally, Coffield and Williamson’s From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery which I only bought recently, makes compelling reading. To paraphrase the blurb, it calls for educators to challenge the dominant market-led model of education and instead build a more democratic one, better able to face threats such as environmental damage; intensified global competition; corrosive social inequalities in and between nations in the world; and the need for a new, just and sustainable economic model. It shows how education policy has led to schools and universities becoming exam factories and further education colleges becoming skills factories. They propose an alternative future for education, which builds “communities of discovery” by realising the collective creativity of students and educators through democracy. Put it down from time to time, but its 80 pages are well worth slowly digesting.   

I wish you all a great summer break; stay safe and happy reading.

The books

Macneal. E. (2019) The Doll Factory. Picador.

St. Aubyn. E. (2016) The Melrose novels (the 5 novels in one book).  Picador.

Gompertz, W. (2012) What are you looking at? Penguin.

Russell, R. (1972) Bird Lives. Quartet Books.

Greger, M. (2016) How Not to Die. Macmillan.

Coffield, F. & Williamson, B. (2012) From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery. Bedford Way Papers.

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