Barton Bookshelf: Summer 2019
‘Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers,’ said US President Harry Truman. Once again, here are ten suggestions for your holiday - a mix of fiction and non-fiction titles, none of them about education, and each of them compelling in a different way. Enjoy!
Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me
McEwan’s novels are always thought-provoking as well as entertaining. This one is fascinating for its chilling exploration of how the lines between humans and robots may one day blur. It’s especially enjoyable for its depiction of an alternative 1980s, in which Britain has just lost the Falklands War.
Sue Hubbard, Rainsongs
A lyrical, haunting account of Martha Cassidy, staying at her cottage in western Ireland and trying to come to terms with the death of her husband, before getting drawn into local disputes in a community she isn’t part of.
Geraldine McCaughrean, Where The World Ends
We are in a golden age of writing for teenagers and young adults: here’s a novel that delivers an unusual story with great clarity and style. Quill and his friends arrive once again on a remote island to hunt birds. But this particular summer, 1727, no one arrives to take them home. McCaughrean’s novel charts what happens next.
Chris Hammer, Scrublands
In an obscure country town, a priest suddenly opens fire on the congregation: if you’re a fan of crime thrillers, here’s one of those dark, breathless thrillers that provide essential escapism for holidays.
Anne Griffin, When All is Said
84-year-old Maurice Hannington sits at a bar in an Irish town and offers up five toasts. Collectively, they reveal the people and events of his colourful life. This is a beautiful, poignant novel, recommended to me by an assistant in Waterstone’s. It has resonated ever since.
Juliet Blaxfield, The Easternmost House
Blaxfield lives in a farmhouse on edge of the Suffolk coast, one of England’s most easterly points. And the land it is on is falling relentlessly into the sea. She uses this stark context to reflect on the seasons and the rhythms of life. A gentle and quietly moving read.
Robert MacFarlane, Underland
MacFarlane writes in a mesmerising way about his journeys beneath the earth - under forests, into caves, and through hypnotically strange antechambers deep below the streets of Paris. It’s a haunting depiction of the unfamiliar worlds beneath our feet.
James O’Brien, How to be Right
Radio talkshow host James O’Brien takes various themes - political correctness, LGBT issues, Trump, Brexit - and uses his many telephone encounters with the public to explore how easily people create their own versions of the truth. It’s feisty in style, but makes serious points with a lightness of touch.
Emily Maitlis, Airhead
BBC2’s ‘Newsnight’ has been revitalised this year since Emily Maitlis became its main presenter. In this book she explores the on-screen encounters she has had with politicians and others, filling in the backstory in an entertaining, often waspish way.
David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere
This is the book that has most influenced me over the past year - a compelling account of polarised attitudes in the UK. Goodhart’s analysis compares the Anywheres - people like us who leave home, go to university, see ourselves as global citizens - and the Somewheres - rooted in communities and values that they frequently see criticised and denigrated. Essential reading.
Holidays are a time to escape, to reflect, to nourish our minds and souls. And as we always remind ourselves: “Not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers” (Harry Truman). So here’s my list of fiction, non-fiction and poetry that you might enjoy over immersing yourself in over the Easter break.
Jennifer Palmieri, Dear Madam President
An elegantly written, and inspiring, reflection addressed to a future female US President.
Michael Jago, Rab Butler: The Best Prime Minister We Never Had?
Some 75 years on from Butler’s 1944 Education Act, a biography that shows us what politicians can achieve in adversity
Michael Barber, How to Run A Government
A wonderfully optimistic reminder of things governments can do to make life better
Darren McGarvey, Poverty Safari
A stark personal account of an upbringing steeped in poverty
Mary Oliver, Devotions: Collected Poems
Inspiring, sustaining poetry to rejuvenate you for the term ahead
Sally Rooney, Normal People
The shifting relationship between two young people from different backgrounds, told chiefly through dialogue. It’s warm, funny and (be warned) racy
Jonathan Coe, Middle England
A laugh-out-loud funny account of middle-aged life, though please note: it mentions Brexit
Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
Moving back to Leicester has reacquainted me with the great comic author, Sue Townsend. Adrian is a national treasure
Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
A haunting, heart-wrenching meditation on love, loss and living
Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places
For fans of crime fiction, here’s a writer who sets compelling stories in the haunting landscapes of Norfolk
As a Guardian editorial put it recently: ‘Books can enlarge our sympathy, broaden our perspective and calm our frazzled senses. In this sense, even a book you buy for yourself can also be a gift to others’.
So if you ever felt guilty about buying a book for yourself, there’s now officially no need to. It’s time to lose yourself in a good book or two.
As ever, I’m providing a very personal list of titles I’ve enjoyed, deliberately with none specifically about education. We all need to switch off for a while. I’ve included fiction and non-fiction and poetry.
All of these are texts to make us think, to escape, to deepen our humanity and to feel more optimistic. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Let me know what you think.
And here’s wishing you a very happy Christmas.
Susan Hill, From the Heart
Critics were mixed in their responses to Susan Hill’s tale of a young female teacher’s coming-out story. Me - I found it poignant and moving.
Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing
I speak to many people coping with the growing grip of dementia on their parents. This novel is unexpectedly joyful, and often funny, in dealing with a topic of such anguish.
William Boyd, Love is Blind
William Boyd is a favourite novelist of mine, and his latest takes a character from a footnote on page one through a fascinating life amid a nineteenth century world on the brink of change.
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls
Pat Barker’s magnificent novel shows us the epic story of Homer’s Iliad through the eyes of the bystanders – in particular, the women on the sidelines with their powerful insights into war and power.
David Sedaris, Calypso
Sedaris is one of the world’s greatest comic writers, and these essays are funny, but also darker and more disturbing, dealing with what it’s like to grow older.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership
This is a brilliant book – four mini-biographies of American presidents in which their leadership qualities are drawn out and analysed. It’s compelling.
Michelle Obama, Becoming
A wonderfully optimistic book about ambition, politics and love. The early chapters around her own constrained childhood are especially endearing. It’s a beautifully written memoir and a reminder of why politics matters.
Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now
A fascinating account of how human beings have made decisions and developed technology to make us a formidably successful species.
Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
Mental health is a concern to all of us – for our children, our colleagues, and ourselves. Matt Haig’s book de-stigmatises the anxiety so many of us routinely feel and reflects with compassion and reassurance on how to be a human in a complex world.
Neil Astley & Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Soul Food
I carry poetry with me always – often physically but always in my mind. It’s what English teachers do. This is one of the most uplifting anthologies ever – just as the cover says: ‘Soul Food’.
Over the past year, I’ve recommended fiction and non-fiction titles in the run-up to the summer, Christmas, and Easter breaks. All of these titles have been defiantly not about education.
Every summer gives us the luxury of escaping briefly from the day job to spend time with family and friends, and to lose ourselves in books. So here’s a reading list containing no education titles. Instead, I’ve included five fiction and five non-fiction recommendations which I hope may entertain, amuse and inform you. Enjoy a well deserved break.
Jane Harper, The Dry
I’m not usually a fan of thrillers, but this one – set in the claustrophobic heat of a small Australian community – is a genuine page-turner
Robert Harris, Conclave
Swirling political intrigue at the Vatican as a new Pope is elected
Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
A funny, poignant study of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine
Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13
A haunting, relentless tale of a community dealing year after year with a child who has gone missing
Xan Brooks, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times
A dark, deeply disturbing tale of victims of World War I living a secret life in the depths of the English countryside
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist
Urging us to shake off ‘fashionable pessimism’, Ridley presents a forensically-described celebration of the achievements of humans
Juliet Nicolson, The Perfect Summer
A beautiful, occasionally heartbreaking, portrait of the long hot summer of 1911 – and the growing sense people have of a world on the brink of war
Caroline Slocock, People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me
A fascinating political retrospective from a member of Mrs Thatcher’s inner team – and the UK’s first female private secretary
Mark Vanhoenacker, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Vanhoenacker is a British Airways pilot who is simply in love with flying. This is his elegant, rapturous account of why
Rosamund Young, The Secret Life of Cows
If, like me, you didn’t know that cows have friends and enemies, play hide-and-seek, and sometimes bear grudges, you’ll love this. It’s charming
For this year's May bank holiday and half-term, I recommended five uplifting books about education, plus five podcasts.
If you haven’t yet discovered the joy of listening to podcasts, try to make time, in the car, on a walk, or on a rowing machine; podcasts are a brilliant way to gain a glimpse into other interests, other worlds.
Daisy Christodoulou, Making Good Progress
Simply one of the best books about education, and an essential text in our campaign to reinstate teachers’ professional knowledge
Anthony Seldon, The Fourth Education Revolution
A superb and uplifting exploration of how artificial intelligence could help to reinvent education
Mary Myatt, Hopeful Schools
A dose of half-term optimism, reaffirming the centrality of values and humanity
Alex Beard, Natural Born Learners
A fascinating, energetic comparison of schools systems around the world
Tara Westover, Educated
A gritty autobiography of someone whose life is transformed by education
In Our Time
This weekly discussion of familiar and obscure topics remains unmissable. Start with this exploration of the lives and impact of George and Robert Stephenson.
This American Life and RadioLab
I’m cheating. These are two (not one) podcasts from the USA. They both brilliantly illuminate everyday life with audio storytelling skills that are amazing. Start with this RadioLab account of Diane Van Deren, an extraordinary ultra-runner.
Reasons to be Cheerful
Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd talk on a theme for an hour or so. It’s informative and entertaining. Start with this episode about not eating meat.
Political Thinking with Nick Robinson
In-depth conversations with a light touch. Robinson is a master interviewer. Start with this interview with shadow education minister Angela Rayner.
Desert Island Dishes
If, like me, you like to escape on holiday into food and cooking, you’ll love Margie Broadhead’s relaxed informal discussions about, er, food and cooking. Start with this one with Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers.
Books, like holidays, are for escaping into, so I’ve included nothing directly about education. Instead, here’s a selection of titles I’ve enjoyed in the past year or so - chosen to entertain, inform and provoke. I hope you enjoy them.
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard’s lucid style and personal voice illuminates the world of Ancient Rome in all its glory, ambition and hard-wired violence.
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
A compelling, if chilling, illumination of the way social media has triggered a return to the practice of public shaming. It’s a real page-turner.
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
A breathtakingly ambitious history of us, human beings, told with great verve, powerful storytelling and exuberant optimism.
Mary Aiken, The Cyber Effect
As a clinical psychologist, Dr Aiken explores what our obsession with screen and online life might be doing to our sense of identity and to the self-esteem of our children.
Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery
An elegant, fascinating set of reflection from a world-renowned neurosurgeon – an expert who, like so many experts, exudes confidence, neurotic worry about making mistakes, and deep humility.
Julian Barnes, The Only Story
I’m a huge fan of Julian Barnes – writer of clever, polished stories that always take you by surprise. This new book – hilarious and then heart-breaking – is (in my view) his best novel to date.
Susan Hill, From the Heart
I’ve always loved Susan Hill’s writing. This new novel, illuminates the life and decisions of Olive Piper, a young woman growing up in a harsher, unforgiving era. It’s beautifully done.
Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney
I noticed this writer when he won the Costa prize for ‘best first novel’. Be warned: it is a darkly funny but disturbing tale in the tradition of gothic horror novels.
Anita Brookner, Latecomers
Brookner is my favourite novelist – writing of London, of unravelling relationships, of loneliness. In this novel, two Jewish boys, Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, are sent to London as refugees in the war and become lifelong friends.
Helen Dunmore, Inside the Wave
Helen Dunmore was a much loved novelist who died of cancer last summer. This final collection of poetry is about her family and her encroaching illness. The poems are beautiful, understated and deeply poignant.