What We're Reading: May

| by Literature Team

Find out what the book-ish team here at the British Council have been reading this month!

Each month we publish a blog with the literature team's current reading list. Come back each month to take a peek at the reading list of a literary programmer. Are you reading any of these books? Let us know what you think on Twitter @LitBritish. This month we also have a guest entry from our colleague Paula Silva at British Council Colombia!


Harriet Williams, Literature Programme Coordinator

I have just read #Afterhours by Inua Ellams and other poets, a collection documenting Inua’s residency at the National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre. In it, Inua finds a poem for each year of his life and re-writes it to reflect themes and moments from his own life. It’s a tremendously ambitious collection which introduced me to a whole lot of great poetry from the last three decades that I had missed, and Inua’s reinterpretations are impressive, nuanced and touching. I am currently reading: The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write – edited by Sabrina Mahfouz.


Swithun Cooper, Literature Research and Information Manager 

I’ve just finished reading Ross Raisin’s novel A Natural, which explores the world of British football – its isolation, repetition, hyper-masculinity and homophobia – through the eyes of a newly-signed player to a professional team. The book pulls off the brilliant paradox of detailing the emotional worlds of characters whose focus is physical rather than verbal, instead describing their actions with such precision that their feelings bubble under on every page. I’m now reading Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese-American poet whose collection looks at his family history and personal life in the context of 20th Century history. At times dreamlike and elusive, with physical description turning quickly to metaphor, it’s a challenging but hugely rewarding experience.


Cortina Butler, Director Literature

Mick Herron has created the antithesis of the James Bond spy novel in Dead Lions. The main characters his series are all washed-up failures, banished to seedy offices opposite the Barbican in London, to labour on brain-numbing tasks until they finally surrender and leave, saving, it is assumed, their MI5 masters from the trouble and expense of sacking them. But under the leadership – not that it resembles any leadership style promoted in management courses – of the profoundly unattractive Jackson Lamb, former front-line spy in Germany during the Cold War, these so-called ‘slow horses’ prove surprisingly effective. Dead Lions is the second in the series and it is a delight to see the characters develop as their backstories are elaborated. Herron’s style is dry and ironic and the dialogue is sharp and funny. The counter-terrorism themes are very current but interwoven with a look back to the spy world of Smiley’s People with references to Moscow Centre and a thread from the ‘Circus’ of John le Carré to the ‘Park’ in Herron’s books - the MI5 headquarters to which all the slow horses aspire to return. Dead Lions won the 2013 Crime Writers' Association Goldsboro Gold Dagger award and others in the series have been shortlisted for both Gold and Steel Daggers. Start with Slow Horses and proceed from there. If you like a clever, contemporary take on a traditional genre you are in for a treat.


Jim Hinks, Literature Programme Manager 

I've been reading Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley  It’s astonishing that Mary Shelley wrote this while still a teenager (2018 marks the 200th anniversary of its publication). Cited as a foundational text in the genres of YA, gothic and SF, the questions it raises about creating sentient life, and the power this might unleash, seem particularly apposite as we approach AI singularity. Goodness there's a lot of lamenting, though. Few characters don't find occasion to weep bitter tears of anguish, grind their teeth in agony, or curse the stars for casting light upon their wretched being. Brilliant fun; I yomped through in a couple of sittings. Also reading Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders) and Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy).


Rachel Stevens, Senior Programme Manager

I’m reading A Natural by Ross Raisin. It’s his third novel featuring Tom Pearman, a young, lower league gay footballer at the beginning of his career in a sport where homosexuality is pretty much denied. What I love about Ross Raisin’s novels is the depth of his characters, and his ability to make me empathise with characters from completely different worlds.  His previous novels were written with strong Yorkshire and Scottish dialects, but in A Natural the language is simple and clear. Rather than words, it is the silences, what is not or what cannot be said that is important in the relationship between Tom and his partner, his club and his family. I’ve really enjoyed reading this, and look forward to wherever Raisin takes us next. 


Daisy Leitch, Programme Manager South Asia and Communications Manager

This month I read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy : A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) a memoir of growing up in Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. Vance enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq then went on to be a graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School and the book tells the story of his journey and his family's struggles with poverty. I’ve also been reading Raoul Martinez's work of philosophy Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for Our Future (2016) it brings together insights from neuroscience, psychology, politics, and economics into a thesis on the limits of freedom. I am looking forward to reading Aarhus 39: Stories of journeys around Europe (2017) collected by the Hay Festival and featuring leading writers for young readers. Some of those authors will also be at the Festival in Wales later in May. I also have Moshin Hamid’s book Exit West (2017) on my bedside table.


Paula Silva, Arts & Creative Industries Manager, British Council Colombia

This year I decided to devote all my reading efforts to crime fiction. Why? Because I really overdid it last year and I felt like I needed my books to grab me quickly and not let me go. And also because the worst has already happened in a crime book, and it’s easy to find comfort in feeling appalled by fiction. The book I’m reading now is the first in the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell: Faceless Killers. What I have found riveting about Mankell’s writing is that he hides a universal, ethical question about racism and the fear of 'the other' underneath the surface of the very bloody and very atypical murder of an elderly couple in the Swedish countryside. Wallander is a dark, troubled, yet noble and well-constructed character whose state of mind seems to echo the harsh winter of the January when the murders take place. I have bought all 10 books in the Wallander series and will expect to finish reading them before New Year’s Eve.

I don’t like to read more than one book at a time, but because we had Geoff Dyer as our guest at FILBO (Bogotá International Book Fair), I started reading Zona: A Book about a Journey to a Room. Dyer is a chameleon of literary genres, and I have found his book both beautiful and exhilarating. 'Stalker' is one of the most important (and perhaps the most difficult) science fiction films; and this book is a narration, scene by scene, of a film that seems to last ten years and remains in one's memory for life. But, of course, it isn't just a verbal transcript of a magnificent film: Dyer weaves a cobweb of anecdotes from both his own and Tarkovsky's lives, and gives a voice to his hypothetical reader, who is watching the film alongside him. Reading Zona has been a phenomenal experience; as was watching 'Stalker' at the ICA in 2004.

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