Books as a break

We’re in second term, and studying can get overwhelming. Sometimes it’s good to take a break with a book that’s non-curricular for a change. Our writers give their recommendations.

Karl Ove Knausgård – My Struggle

Not much happens across the 3,600 pages of Knausgård’s autobiographical project; he mostly picks up his children from school, loads and unloads the washing machine, and bickers with his wife Linda. Interspersed with these examples of extreme normality are the author’s musings on art, literature, philosophy, his own childhood, his insecurities, his relationship with is father, and by the time we’ve reached the sixth and final volume: the book series itself. Critic James Wood claimed that Knausgård’s writing was so absorbing that ‘even when I was bored I was interested,’ while Zadie Smith said she needed the next volume of the series ‘like crack.’ Reading about the trials and tribulations of everyday life is oddly relaxing, and I promise that after you put the book down, you will end up viewing whatever mundane activity you do next through the Knausgårdian lens, which for a while will make ordinary life feel extraordinary.

Johanne Elster Hanson

Dylan Thomas omnibus: under Milk Wood, poems, stories, and broadcasts

Even as a joint honours English Literature student, poetry tends to intimidate me; I was always fearful of not understanding it and not knowing details that GCSE and A Level exam boards expect you to memorise. However, the poetry of Dylan Thomas has always been a little different. The way Thomas uses language, creating and changing words to make impressions on the senses, as in the very beginning of the radio play Under Milkwood, and the pure ineffability of some of his poetry, such as ‘I fellowed sleep’, puts me at ease. With Thomas’ poetry I can enjoy it regardless of whether I understand all the philosophical or religious references that he employs, as in ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ or ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. His poetry is simply beautiful, bordering on the sublime.

Deborah Harkness – All Souls trilogy

Hardly literary, this bestselling trilogy about vampires, witches, and daemons has spawned a spin-off (Time’s Convert) and an excellent television series (A Discovery of Witches, as seen on Sky). I thought that I had outgrown this sort of fantasy fiction, but when you want a break from course reading, something fun, easy-to-read, and engaging like this is perfect. Historian and reluctant witch Diana Bishop accidentally discovers a long-lost magical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Unfortunately for her, all the other magical species want it too, including the attractive and centuries-old vampire Matthew de Clermont. I think you can guess where the story leads from there. The books are chunky, but Harkness’ writing style makes these quite quick reads; start with A Discovery of Witches, and if you want to give the TV series a go, it’s an easy binge-watch.

Jodie Bailey

Natasha Pulley – The Bedlam Stacks

Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks is a charming romp, one that combines magical and paranormal elements with historical fiction. Young and crippled Merrick Tremayne, English horticulturalist, is given the task of retrieving medicinal quinine bark from the depths of Peru with his friend Clem Markham. On arrival, they are guided to the mysterious town of New Bethlehem, or Bedlam, with the help of the equally mysterious priest and native Raphael. It is here that occurrences of exploding trees, invisible adversaries, and moving statues present the visiting men with a myth of a place that is never as it seems. A novel that slips through (and plays with) both time and reality, The Bedlam Stacks is whimsical, surreal, unexpectedly romantic, and an overall lovely work that constitutes a completely immersive and entertaining read.

Ally Fowler

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September 2021
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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