Sun, sea and text: NS Summer Reading 2013
Old, new, unexpected and beloved: our contributors recommend some essential summer reading.
Regular contributors and friends of the New Statesman sent us their ideas for the perfect summer reading - unlike other lists, we haven't limited them to recently published books, or even books you haven't read before ("summer is the time for rereading", John Burnside told us) meaning that the results are as intriguing and varied as the people who picked them. Click on a contributor's name below to go straight to their preferred summer read, or just scroll down to browse through the series.
Sheila Heti | Richard Curtis | Sarah Brown | Boris Johnson | Siddhartha Deb | Geoffrey Robertson | Andrew Mitchell | Jemima Khan | Mark Damazer | Danny Dorling | John Gray | John Bew | Mehdi Hasan | Christopher Reid | Robin Ince | Bryan Appleyard | Michael Gove | Jenny Diski | Sherard Cowper-Coles | A L Kennedy | Hadley Freeman | Alexandra Harris | John Burnside | Craig Raine | Olivia Laing | Tom Watson | Jane Shilling | Dylan Jones | Deborah Levy | Richard J Evans | Richard Mabey | Bella Freud | A A Gill | Douglas Alexander | Leo Robson | Nicholas Lezard | Sarah Churchwell | Claire Lowdon | Rachel Cooke | Antonia Quirke | Kate Mossman | Bim Adewunmi | Alex Preston | Claire Tomalin | Ian Stewart | Nina Caplan | Isabel Hilton
Eat Me: the Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin (Knopf, $24.95) by Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreno may look like just a cookbook but it’s secretly an experimental autobiography, formed from the words of Kenny Shopsin, who owned the Lower East Side culinary institution, Shopsin’s. His greasy spoon had an eccentric list of rules on its menu and Kenny had a penchant for throwing out customers he didn’t like. The recipes are fun to read and follow, as are Shopsin’s entertaining musings on family, customer service and eggs. It’s a formally and culinarily inspiring book.
Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains (Pan, £9.99) about the abolition of slavery is the only history book I’ve read since school and a primer for anyone interested in changing the world – all the ups and downs, the need for epic patience, the use of civil and parliamentary pressure. At the centre of it is the fabulous figure of Thomas Clarkson, a giant red-head, who one day stopped by a roadside having written an essay at university on the issue of slavery and said to himself: “If the contents of the essay are true, it is time some person should see these calamities to their end.” And then spent his life doing just that.
The true story of the rise, perilous fall and spectacular rise again of anything makes for a good read. When the subject is Lego, it makes it universally compelling. As a mum, a global education activist and a manager, I have every reason to need Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Toy Industry by David Robertson (Random House, £18.99). As the number one toy in the world, the Lego “biography” has to appeal to everyone this summer in between the political tomes and the hot beach reads.
This summer’s most sizzling beach read is unquestionably The UN Environmental Programme: the First Forty Years by Stanley P Johnson (UNEP, $30).
A few months ago, I finally sat down with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (Vintage, £8.99), wanting to read something paced quickly, yet not entirely driven by plot. It fulfilled my expectations; it moves swiftly but Ripley grows in complexity, becoming enigmatic even as his motives grow more transparent. The novel is also a warped travel book, a twisted version of the ever-potent theme of Americans abroad, and, most of all, a wonderful variation on the idea of reinventing the modern self. All the grand tourist sights and experiences are here but shot through with anxiety, violence and friendships laced with self-interest and cruelty.
The war of American independence has been relatively ignored by British history courses and historians, probably because Britain was defeated. Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s The Men Who Lost America (Oneworld, £30) is an important reminder that this was not the result of any failure of generalship but the arrogance and ignorance of a ruling class unable to comprehend how fiercely people will fight for their rights. The valour of the patriots comes out all too clearly in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution (Doubleday, £14.99), which would make a good companion volume.
Edward Stourton’s Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler across the Pyrenees (Doubleday, £20) is a brilliantly researched tale of personal bravery, risk, Nazi brutality and occasional acts of French perfidy. It is moving, too, as we hear first-hand accounts from a dying generation who lived through extraordinary times and whose memories we should harvest and cherish as Stourton so clearly does. He also encourages us to ask the question: what would we have done if faced with an escaper who needed our help? Many of those who did help were women who took extraordinary risks and who often paid the ultimate price.
Moth Smoke (Penguin, £8.99) is the less well-known first novel by Mohsin Hamid, the Man Booker-shortlisted author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It’s a classic postcolonial counterpunch against the stereotyped depictions of Pakistan by Orientalists, “Raj revivalists” and Fox News. Hamid chooses to focus not on the familiar bearded fanatics but instead on Pakistan’s degenerate ruling elite. He unlocks an unknown but powerful section of Pakistani society, with his untranslatable words, literally translated Punjabi insults, vernacular histories, references to the Quran, to eastern literature and, in particular, to the Urdu classical poetry, known as ghazals, from which the title is derived.
If you want to go long, chunky and serious – go for Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (Vintage Classics, £9.99), the great 20th-century Russian novel. A wonderful humane penetration of war and totalitarianism, fit to sit alongside Tolstoy, and a book that petrified the Soviet establishment – who suppressed it. Lighter – Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (Flamingo, £8.99), a beautiful evocation of obsessive love and mores in late-18th-century Germany, with not a wasted word.
If you want something a little dense, then I’d suggest Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, edited by Patricia A McAnany and Norman Yoffee (Cambridge Uni- versity Press, £18.47). The book collects together criticisms of some of Jared Diamond’s claims in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. These myths of past self-inflicted collapse make us far more fearful about our own chances of societal survival. Alternatively, if it’s been a long year and you want a rest try Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough (Walker Books, £5.99). It helps to have a child to read it to, but that’s far from essential.
The most extraordinary work of fiction I’ve read in a long time is Stoner (Vintage Classics, £8.99) by John Williams. First published in 1965, it is one of the lost masterpieces of American – and world – literature, only now being rediscovered. It’s the story of an entire life, from birth to the moment of death, of a seemingly nondescript human being – a boy from a poor Missouri farming family, who enters college to study agriculture, is bewitched by literature and spends the rest of his days teaching the subject. If you’re looking for a book that’s simple and subtle, warmly human and at the same time utterly pitiless in its rendition of the vicissitudes of an ordinary existence, here’s one you will read again and again.
If you want to understand what has happened in Egypt from the fall of the former President Mubarak to the recent ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood by the country’s military you could do worse than start with the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (Arc Manor, £3.99). Karl Marx’s 1852 essay explained how the revolution of 1848 was overturned “like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky” by a military coup led by Napoleon’s nephew Louis. “Easy come, easy go,” wrote Marx in a masterly analysis of the socio-economic tensions and rural-urban divide that showed how Napoleon III could actually claim much more popular legitimacy than the government he dismissed.
Who better to offer a book-length riposte to Richard Dawkins and his faith-hating, God-bashing, “new atheist” fanboys than the noted US cell biologist – and practising Roman Catholic – Kenneth Miller? Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God (HarperPerennial, £8.99) takes on both Christian creationists and those atheistic materialists who claim Darwin rendered religion irrelevant. “Evolution is the key to understanding our relationship with God,” he writes.
Bernard Spencer (1909-1963) lived and worked in Greece, Egypt, Spain and Austria, but his poems are less exotic than idiosyncratic in their unpredictable angles of view and ways of saying. I love his outsider’s stance and cultivated awkwardness, though it is perhaps just such qualities of not fitting in that have doomed him to be less widely appreciated than he should be. Peter Robinson’s edition of his Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose (Bloodaxe, £15) reminds us how good Spencer can be: the ideal travelling companion, noticing more than you do and finding exactly the right, startling phrase to point things out.
As someone with a habit of waffling and using five words when two will do, I am in awe of Dan Rhodes’s brevity. He is the master of the very, very short story. In Marry Me (Canongate, £8.99), he condenses stories of melancholy, failure, romance and ridiculousness into a few sentences. Reading this book will also mean you have time for another and so use that time for Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance: How It Drives Science (Oxford University Press, £14.99) – like Rhodes, he is both concise and splendidly aphoristic.
I’m not a fan of big, dumb beach reads. I prefer small, smart ones. Nothing could be smaller and smarter than Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River (Grove Press Poetry, £9.99). Ryan was America’s poet laureate, a grand title for such a devoted miniaturist but a deserved one. You can find here traces of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, but most of all such intensity of focus and high craft that you will gasp on every page. And you will be reminded, even on the beach, that “Everything contains some/silence”.
Ned Beauman is the best young novelist in Britain. Boxer, Beetle (Sceptre, £8.99) and The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre, £8.99) are two of the most brilliantly inventive, and hilarious, things I’ve read all year. The only work that stands comparison – for both quality of writing and wit – is Roger Lewis’s What am I Still Doing Here? (Coronet, £8.99) – which also manages to be both winningly self-pitying and moving.
If summer reading means you have time to become fully absorbed in a narrative and delighted by prose, then go for it by reading or rereading Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (Wordsworth Classics, £1.99). The answer is everything and nothing. What James knew was about point of view. Maisie sees everything but knows less than the reader observing her observations. He explores the chasm and reverberations between the child who helplessly sees and barely understands, and the far from grown-up adults who use her as a screen for projection and cover. Brilliant, lush, funny and totally unsentimental.
There is only one book that anyone worried about the state of the world should be reading this summer: Barbara W Tuchman’s magisterial The March of Folly (Abacus, £15.99). In this examination of stupidity in statesmanship from Troy to Vietnam, via the Renaissance popes and the American uprising against rule from London, the great American historian asks why experienced statesmen behave so foolishly. She concludes that, faced with a choice between what is right but unpalatable in the short term and what is less difficult today but leads to long-term catastrophe, politicians almost invariably opt for jam today and disaster tomorrow. Sobering diplomatic medicine, administered in the most beautiful prose.
I would recommend Pack My Bag (Vintage Classics, £8.99), Henry Green’s wonderfully-crafted autobiography. I don’t even like autobiography but I loved this from the first. It’s a piercingly honest book about a young man’s fears and failings as he grows up in an English public school and sees the bloodbath of the First World War sweep away each senior year. In a Britain freshly obsessed with public-school values and about to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak, I can think of few better reads.
Beautiful Ruins (Viking, £8.99) by Jess Walter is a heavenly summery read. The novel skips between 1960s Italy and modern-day Hollywood – and surely everyone likes to read about those times and places – with extra stop-offs in between. When you read it, you can’t believe no one’s thought of this plot before; when you finish, you marvel at how on earth Walter pulled it off.
Here’s a counter-intuitive choice for summer: The Idea of North by Peter Davidson (Reaktion, £16.95), a book of cool greys and pale, late dawns, ice gods and ghostly shivers. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read this year. If you get over-hot on a crowded beach, what better than to think of Eric Ravilious’s crystalline watercolours of the Arctic circle, see in your mind’s eye the stillness of a winter sunset, feel the loneliness of a Scandinavian seafarer. Davidson’s taste is both baroque and ascetic; his prose is correspondingly extravagant and refined. This is cultural history at its very best, unfolding new maps of imagination.
For me, summer is a time for rereading. This year, I am going back to Malcolm X, via By Any Means Necessary (Pathfinder Books, £11), a collections of his speeches, partly because I am researching a novel that touches (very briefly) on the civil rights struggle, but mostly because I love how Malcolm brings a perfect balance of passion and reason to his analyses of all that was, and continues to be, wrong with a profoundly unjust society.
Two outstanding novels. Mark Haddon’s The Red House (Vintage, £7.99) – expertly, quietly polyphonic and studded with precise images: a rocket vanishing with “a fizz like Velcro”; the thorn-bush of sparks from a Zippo lighter. Zadie Smith’s superb NW (Penguin, £7.99) is all about undertow, the inescapable pull of one’s past. No one writes better dialogue. Very good group sex scenes – impeccably imagined in all their anonymous, difficult actuality.
I spent much of last winter working through the gargantuan The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett (Penguin Modern Classics, £20), and it strikes me now that I missed a trick: they’re made for reading on a lilo in someone else’s pool. Warhol is the emperor of gossip and he dishes merrily on the demi-monde of 1970s and 1980s New York, from Jackie Kennedy to Bianca Jagger. Don’t be fooled by the breathless tone, though. Nothing escapes Andy, and his portraits of deviants, disco kids and minor royals makes for one of the greatest diaries I’ve ever read.
For a lazy sunny day by the river, I recommend Siddhartha (Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99), Herman Hesse’s short novel about a journey to enlightenment. In the emotionally stunted world of Westminster, Siddhartha almost acts as a self-help guide to those seeking a gentler, more tender politics. To Hesse “Opinions mean nothing; they may be beautiful or ugly, clever or foolish, anyone can embrace or reject them” – leading a selfless life is what matters. In such hard times, there’s something in those words.
As a teenager, paralysed with ennui, I devoured the novels of Colette, entranced by their exhilarating mixture of sensuality and severity. Then I read a biography, which made me dislike her, and I stopped reading her for a time. But recently, I picked up Earthly Paradise (available second-hand), a collection of her autobiographical writing, and fell in love again. The tension between the glitter of her prose and the sturdiness of her technique is irresistible. It makes you happy and then it makes you think. What more could one ask?
Ringolevio: a Life Played for Keeps by Emmett Grogan (NYRB Classics, £8.99) is one of my favourite books, a classic tale of American self-invention by one of San Francisco’s original anarchist group, the Diggers. Grogan was one of the figureheads of the West Coast movement in the mid Sixties and this book – some of which is true – charts his rise to infamy. The Diggers were devoted to genuine egalitarianism and involved themselves in street theatre, direct action and distributing free food. This is their story as much as Grogan’s and is one of the most fascinating books ever written about Sixties counterculture.
When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, people queued to gaze at the empty space on the wall where she had once been on display. What were they looking for? Always brilliantly provocative, in Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us from Seeing (Shoemaker & Hoard, £11.99 ) Darian Leader asks a question we might all recognise: is it true that when we lose something or someone, they often become more desirable to us? I first read this book ten years ago and I’m still thinking about it.
The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War comes up in just over a year’s time and there’s no better way of preparing for it than by reading Christopher Clark’s magnificent narrative history of the diplomatic manoeuvres that ended in catastrophe, The Sleepwalkers (Penguin, £10.99). It’s compulsively readable and thoroughly entertaining, full of anecdotes and character sketches. It will be hard to beat.
Required summer reading? Indubitably Adam Gopnik’s frost-sparkling essay collection Winter: Five Windows on the Season (Quercus, £18.99). His unexpected revelation that we’ve all had a long love affair with the season we claim to hate – Wordsworth’s solitary night-skating, the obsession with Polar exploration, the imperative psychological and cultural reasons why Christmas must occur in winter – will make you positively look forward to the dismalness that is now probably only a couple of months away.
Rupert Everett’s second volume of memoirs, The Vanished Years (Abacus, £8.99), is just as hilarious and fascinating as his brilliantly titled first book, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. He seems to have done rather a lot during the vanished years. My favourite of his doomed projects is his pilot for a US television series called Mr Ambassador, based on the antics of a fictional English ambassador who specialises in that deadpan British perverse behaviour that is very much Everett’s own style. There are many brilliantly bitchy stories and no one is spared – including the author. Just when his petulant selfishness begins to alienate you, he reels you back in with his honesty and caring.
Perilous Question (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) by Antonia Fraser. The story of the passing of the Great Reform Bill of 1832 is one of those milestones in political history that I blithely refer to but know precious little about. From the first paragraph Fraser renders it a compelling drama with a cast of characters as awful, marvellous, duplicitous, self-seeking and public-spirited as any that Dickens invented. The parallels with today are glaring and the lessons still only partially learned, the consequences as yet not fully redeemed. The brilliance of Fraser is that she sees everything first in human terms – this is history made by people for people and it’s the people that dance, posture and rise with a moving grandeur off the page.
Foreign Policy Begins At Home (Basic Books, £17.99) by Richard Haas is as provocative as it is insightful. The book asks the question of what should US foreign policy look like after a “decade of war”? Haas, the long-serving president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the focus for policymakers should be rebuilding the domestic strength of the US at a time of China’s continuing rise.
V F Perkins’s Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies, published in 1972 and still in print (Da Capo, £9.99), is probably the book I know best. An attempt to replace theories with criteria, it contains miracles of observation and phrasing on every page. I once heard Perkins say that he is a celebrity to about 30 people, and while the number may not be much higher, his status is closer to deity.
I recommend Derek Robinson’s sequence of RAF flying novels, all reprinted by MacLehose Press. His latest, A Splendid Little War (£18.99), set in the Russian post-revolutionary civil war, is perhaps even better than his first and most famous, Goshawk Squadron, which Saul Bellow wanted to win the Booker Prize when he was a judge. It’s not out in paperback yet but the sheer quality of the prose and bleakly comic moral vision will make you wish it was twice as long.
The investigative journalist who broke the MPs’ expenses story, Heather Brooke, has long been a fierce campaigner for government transparency. In last year’s The Revolution Will Be Digitised (Windmill, £8.99), she used her experiences of WikiLeaks and hackers, including her personal encounters with Julian Assange, to explore the ethical questions – surveillance, freedom of speech, security – facing us all in a digital age. In the summer of Edward Snowden, her story has only become more timely.
Two novels facing in opposite directions: William Golding’s The Inheritors (Faber & Faber, £7.99) looks back to the time of Neanderthal man, while Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker (Bloomsbury, £8.99) fast-forwards 2,000 years to a post-apocalyptic civilisation living through a second iron age – in Kent. Golding and Hoban give us dispatches from another form of consciousness. The Inheritors is voiced for Lok, a Neanderthal man with limited language. Walker himself narrates Hoban’s book, in an ingeniously corrupt version of modern English. Both works are under-read masterpieces, requiring patience and attention from the reader, and rewarding that patience with their extraordinary, enduring beauty.
Holiday reading, if all goes according to plan, is uninterrupted reading. So my advice is to take with you a short book which can - and probably should - be read in single day: A Month in the Country by J Carr (Penguin, £7.99). The word ‘masterpiece’ is so over-used, but this novel, about a veteran of World War I who finds himself restoring a church fresco in a Yorkshire village, and which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980, could not really be described as anything else. It’s beautiful, and incredibly wise, the lesson being that happiness and pain are often inextricably linked - something that we 21st century types all too often tend to forget.
Gavin Maxwell's A Reed Shaken By The Wind: Travels Among The Marsh Arabs of Iraq (Eland, £12.99) is a witty and deeply unusual memoir of a journey taken with the pompous explorer Alfred Thesiger in 1955 to Basra and then beyond, to live amongst the reed dwellers of the lower reaches of The Tigris, a great marshy expanse of unmapped lagoon where they lived in little villages of reed huts built upon floating islands like dabchicks nests. Inexplicably, Maxwell has dropped out of literary history: a tricky man in real life and once a star of the Special Operations Executive, he had taught spies to make edible maps and kill people with their shoelaces before going on to be a shark hunter, amongst other things. Always a recluse, Maxwell made no attempt to foster professional relationships or toady to publishers. But any fans of his masterpiece Ring of Bright Water (which he wrote next) will love discovering here Maxwell's first otters, given to him by tribesmen, one of whom (a previously unknown species) he smuggles back adoringly to Scotland. Maxwell is our greatest travel writer and this lost book is a complete thrill.
Kendra is a teenage girl in Tucson, Arizona, spending the summer weightlifting and trying to improve her grammar on a community school programme. Merv works at a waterpark and passes his days at the top of a lifeguard's tower, wondering about the old man in the wheelchair who comes to the pool fully-clothed every day. Modern Ranch Living (Bloomsbury, £7.99) is a unique picture of life in a city that is almost too hot to bear, where two loners wait for the monsoon to come and shake things up a bit. Raised in Tucson, now a scriptwriter and teacher at Columbia University, Mark Poirier is one of America's funniest and most compassionate voices.
CLR James’ Letters From London (Signal Books, £10.99) were first published back home in Trinidad, in the Port Of Spain Gazette, in 1932, and they are remarkable, both as historical documents and also as works of 'writer as performer'. He's only 31 here, and a bit of a show-off - he delights, for example, in impressing Edith Sitwell at a Bloomsbury salon. But there are insights also - into racism, society, the first stirrings of feminism, and the chasm that lies between Britain and her empire. You could probably finish this in an hour - you'll be charmed.
Before my holidays proper, I’m heading out to Nigeria to write a piece on the militant terrorist oragnisation Boko Haram. If and when I return from war-torn Maiduguri, I’ll spend a month in the south of Spain nursing my wounds and reading Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Fourth Estate, £20) which sounds wonderful. I’ll also pack a copy of Laurent Binet’s HHhH in French (Grasset & Fasquelle, $25) – it stunned me in English and I can’t wait to revisit it in the original. Finally, some Trollope, perhaps his strange 1980s-set science-fiction novel The Fixed Period (Norilana Books, £6) which predicts, among other things, mobile phones and podcasting.
The book I've greatly enjoyed lately is an old one, The Making Of The English Landscape (Little Toller Books, £12) by the historian WG Hoskins. First published in 1955, and an inspiration to WH Auden, it was a revolutionary step in topographical writing, as William Boyd explains in his introduction, and makes you look at landscape and townscape with new eyes.
According to the literati, Vonnegut didn’t write science fiction. Neither did Dick, Bradbury, Le Guin, Ballard... or, bizarrely, Asimov, whose novels about a collapsing Galactic Empire have suddenly mutated into mainstream literature. Brian Aldiss has always been a wonderful writer, so he must be a good bet for future SF-denial. He’s in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, but that won’t stop them. Finches of Mars (The Friday Project, £14.99) is about a Martian colony whose new-born children never survive. Dare I mention that despite being well-written and having realistic characters, it’s science fiction? At least, until the revisionists get their hands on it.
I intended to suggest Stacy Schiff’s extraordinary Cleopatra (Virgin Books, £7.99), a biography of the stature of the Pyramids – especially given the desert of reliable material she had to work with. Those who wish to understand Egypt can profitably start there. But then Alice Munro announced, at 82, that she was quitting writing, and so I must recommend that anyone who doesn’t yet know what a loss that is tries her piercing stories Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (Chatto & Windus, £8.99), set in her native Canada, every one of which glows like a medieval map. Less an accurate portrayal of the world around us than a superb and moving evocation of the profound inaccuracies, mythical marvels and near-misses that come with being human.
So many good books this year, but I would recommend The Walls of Delhi (UWA Publishing, £24.99). Most of us have read and enjoyed the rich offerings in English by Indian or Indian born writers, but not so much reaches us from writers in the vernacular. This sensitive translation of three tales by Hindi poet and journalist Uday Prakash offers the reader a very different understanding of India and a glimpse of the lives and points of view of the non-English speaking majority.