Lincoln in the Bardo is a debut novel by the prize-winning short story writer, George Saunders. It is nominally focused on the young Willie Lincoln, son of the great American president. Willie has recently passed into the ‘bardo’, a state of existence somewhere between life and death. He is joined in the cemetery by a chorus of neurotic ghosts, all of whom are in some way disfigured by their unfulfilled desires (cue character with a permanently engorged member). The novel uses well over a hundred voices to narrate its story and its form, while not unprecedented, is highly unusual. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, Bardo would have been a disaster, an artless monument to the author’s cleverness. But Saunders wangles from his characters a true interiority and he seasons his prose with humour, pathos, and economy. He is unfailingly kind towards his characters and there is more than a hit of Buddhism in his writing, to which he freely admits. I saw him speak recently at Goldsmith’s and, fanboy that I am, I approached him afterwards for a chat. He was earnest without being trite or condescending. ‘Writing’, he mused, ‘is an exercise in becoming a better person, not in being an asshole to your characters.’ Lincoln in the Bardo, rich as it is in human frailty, bears the fruit of that belief.
Dr Callum Barrell, Lecturer in Politics & International Relations
Not long ago, I considered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trivial prose, frivolous mainstream literature, and most of all, too British-humoured and thus, gave it a wide berth. Recently, however, and more by chance than by choice, I came across an edition that was both pretentiously and circumspectly subtitled “The Nearly Definitive Edition” (containing all 5 books in the series). Unaware of whether it was its absurd front cover or simply a temperamental hunch, I grabbed the edition. I was caught by surprise. The book’s history of the universe, brilliantly written in 800 pages, will crack you up, and I am not speaking of a small giggle that happens solely within the confines of your mind. Your snickering chuckles will be regularly interrupted by unconscious belly laughter (leading to some disapproving glances if you are in public). The book will teach you a great deal; about mankind, the world and the universe – including cricket. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not only an utter joy to read, it is a non-academic and wondrous initiation to the conundra of the humanities. And with its warning: “DON’T PANIC” written on its back cover, there is no better recommendation to an undergraduate student.
Dr Sebastian Ille, Lecturer in Economics
This summer I’m reading The Unholy Consult, the final volume in Canadian fantasy writer/philosopher R. Scott Bakker’s wonderful, and wonderfully weird, Aspect Emperor saga.
Bakker’s work on the surface looks like a classic fantasy tale of war between good and the forces of evil, the unholy consult of Golgotterath. But beneath the surface lurks much deeper existential reflections about human psychology and morality. Bakker is keenly aware of the traditions of the fantasy genre and much of his work can be read as a post-colonial critique of the racial and elitist ideas underlying Tolkien’s work: what would it really be like if some genetically superior prince of a long-lost, legendary dynasty suddenly turned up and laid claim to the throne?
What I find most attractive in Bakker’s work as a medieval historian, is the way he draws upon a deep knowledge of history, especially the First Crusade, to create a world that is far stranger and more surprising than your standard ‘medieval’ fantasy. This might seem paradoxical, but, as all historians are aware, real history tends to be far more outrageous than the things most of can come up with when trying to write fiction. Thus Bakker’s expedition undergoes experiences drawn directly from the historic crusade, although refracted and expanded in the prism of his fantasy world. Thus, like the First Crusade, they find enemies so numerous that they cover the ground and, like that expedition, cannibalise their foes to overcome logistical challenges. As the meme has it: one does not simply walk into Golgotterath.
Dr Lars Kjaer, Head of Faculty & Senior Lecturer in Medieval History
It’s unusual to read a novel about political life and have one’s breath frequently taken away by its poetical expressiveness and imagination. But that was my experience in reading Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 classic All the King’s Men, which presents the dark side of Southern politics between the wars in an eloquently rendered social and personal setting. It’s the story of the rise and fall of a state governor, Willie Stark, who sets out with elevated ideals which over time he betrays utterly. Its narrator is an aide of Stark’s whom the novel’s events push, or pull, towards a tragic self-understanding. I read it a few months ago now, and its images, reflections and shadows stay with me.
Dr David Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
I’m currently reading Salman Rushdie’s 2015 novel, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights, an Arabian Nights for the Digital Age. The supernatural has long been for Rushdie a fitting mode for representing a deranged world – as well as offering the possible means of a cure. Such ambivalence reaches all out war in this novel, in the form of good and bad jinn, fighting over the future of the earth. It thrillingly combines cartoonish binaries with indivisible complexities, and it speaks potently of the hysterical irrationalism of our political present, whilst also offering the hope of transcendence.