What are you reading?

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, University of Nottingham. "I'm reading one of the great works of our time: Vincent van Gogh - The Letters (Thames & Hudson, 2009), a feat of scholarship by a team of curators at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam - six volumes in large format, plus CD, every letter beautifully annotated, every painting sumptuously illustrated. It's almost unbelievable, but Van Gogh was also a terrific writer; and the writer and the painter march hand-in-hand. A heartbreakingly good book."

Timothy Mowl, professor of the history of architecture and designed landscapes, University of Bristol, is reading Marc Girouard's Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640 (Yale University Press, 2009). "After brilliant studies of architectural and cultural history, Girouard returns to his first love and still writes like an angel. By its provocative, often lyrical, scholarship, this sensationally illustrated book proves that England's fantasy palaces and poetically spatial lodges were Renaissance achievements to rival Italy's."

Colin Pillinger is professor of planetary sciences at The Open University. "Just to be topical I had another look at a couple of books about the Star of Bethlehem. Star of Bethlehem Mystery (Corgi, 1981) by David Hughes is probably the most thorough look at the evidence: astronomical, astrological and theological. Michael Molnar's The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Rutgers University Press, 1999) is based on the chance purchase of a coin minted in Antioch contemporary with the event. Both conclude that planets rather than stars were responsible, but differ as to when and where (that is, in which constellation planetary conjunctions occurred). This subject is a science 'whodunnit' at its best."

Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society, University of Essex, is reading Peter Matthiessen's The Cloud Forest (1961; Vintage, 2009). "A lyrical account by one of the greatest of all nature writers, in which Matthiessen journeys across South America in search of people in their own particular wildernesses - from jungles to altiplano, and from swamps to the rocks and winds of Tierra del Fuego. He reflects on fading wildlife - and yet this was written 50 years ago. A remarkable insight by the author of quite possibly the best-ever nature book, The Snow Leopard."

Ulrike Zitzlsperger, senior lecturer in German, University of Exeter, is currently rereading Erich Kastner's Fabian. "This novel was first published in 1931 (a new, complete English translation, Fabian: The Story of a Moralist, appeared via Libris in 1989). Set in Berlin in the late 1920s, it tells the story of a metropolis characterised by hedonistic excesses and political extremism. Kastner's matter-of-fact depiction of the economic climate of the time, in particular the impact of unemployment, inevitably fosters comparisons to the present day. His works were among those burnt by the Nazis in May 1933."

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