Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round up the new books you should and shouldn’t read. Features of this week A bit of art history, Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart and Uncommon Courage: The Yachtsmen Volunteers of World War II.
For more books, take a look at our Books Digest archive.
A bit of art history by Charlotte Mullins (Yale University Press), £13.75.
For all readers familiar with the period brick that is art history by EH Gombrichfind light solace in A little history of art, a smaller alternative from art critic and animator Charlotte Mullins.
Prepare to be taken on a journey out of time that spans 100,000 years of art in just forty chapters and discover a cornucopia of art within these pages; from thousand-year-old cave paintings and limestone panels from the Mayan civilization to Benin bronzes, Renaissance frescoes, Guerrilla Girls poster campaigns and installations by artist-activist Ai Weiwei.
The crackle in A little history of art, What sets it apart from Gombrich’s timeless classic is that Mullins highlights lesser-known artists from around the world. The author challenges the “myopic prioritization of male Western art” that has dominated art history by reframing the narrative to include artists – male and female — from the Niger Valley to Peru, China and Australia. Sure, Eurocentric artists like Van Dyck, Ruben, and Picasso get airtime, but it’s the encounter with female artists like Chinese painter and poet Guan Daosheng that makes the book unique.
In A little history of art, the author, former editor of Art Review and V&A Magazine, plays to her strengths, breathing life into every work she looks through the microscope. Each chapter skillfully sets the stage through a series of vignettes, immersing the reader in the idea that they might be sitting in the room with Caravaggio or Van Gogh. If you’re looking for a chronological crusade through centuries of art alongside reflections on its changing role in our society, book a tour with this top-notch guide.
Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart (Pan Macmillan), £12.59.
Douglas Stuart’s second novel follows a similar path to its predecessor, focusing on a tender soul in the hostile world of Glasgow housing estates in the 1990s. Similar themes recur: sexual abuse, bigotry, homophobia and a son desperate for the affections of his selfish alcoholic mother.
Young Mungo structure is perhaps the biggest divergence from the Booker price Shuggie bath. The chapters alternate between the delicate and beautiful romance between Protestant Mungo and Catholic James and a fishing trip to Loch Lomond taking place a few months later.
The plot is a little predictable (you can feel how the fishing trip will end before it even begins), but Stuart’s stunning prose and compelling, complex characters are more than enough. Although faithful to reality, the characters have an almost archetypal, mythical quality, reminiscent of the creations of Emile Zola. By themselves they subtly guide the reader to consider matters beyond that dear gray place; the contrast between Mungo’s surrogate parents, his brother and sister Hamish and Jodie, for example, forces you to think about what it means to be the head of a family.
To balance this, Stuart is relentless in his granular portrayal of the sights, sounds and above all the smells of Glasgow’s estates, his images perfectly capturing the horror and beauty of everyday life.
Uncommon Courage: The Yachtsmen World War II volunteers by Julia Jones (Bloomsbury Publishing), £18.89.
Uncommon Courage is the story of those 2,000 men who volunteered to serve in the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve before and during the Second World War. They were drawn to service in the Royal Navy by a shared love of the sea and boating. For the most part, these were part-time sailors and recreational boaters with little or no previous military experience. They received remarkably little training and started out with the encouragement of their fellow full-time Royal Navy professionals.
Having discovered a cache of previously unknown papers belonging to her father who served in the RNVSR, Julia Jones, well-known writer and owner of classic boats, tells the story of an innovation, a bravery, a remarkable enterprise and spirit brought to wartime service by these gentlemen amateurs. It is a story of true courage and heroism. The telling of this story is long overdue.
My grandfather, John Fox, volunteered for the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve on March 17, 1937. He served until July 1945. Like many, but too few politicians of the time, he foresaw what was to come and wanted to be able to serve his country when needed.
Volunteering for the Voluntary Reserve, knowing the likelihood was that you would be required to serve in the war, could not have been easy or happy. He lived a long and happy life and rarely spoke of his service, but always with great affection for those he served with and the service he loved. This contagious love for the Royal Navy still infects his family, especially me, as I serve with great pleasure as an Honorary Captain in the Royal Naval Reserve.
Uncommon Courage is both fascinating and captivating. It’s a retelling of an important part of our wartime history and yet reads like a James Bond novel. Well worth taking the time to read.