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3 August 2016

The best summer reading, as chosen, half cut, from my deckchair

I like my holidays chatty, boozy, and booky – the only problem is what to pack.

By Tracey Thorn

Holiday time again, packing again, trying to work out how many books I can fit in a suitcase and still be able to lift it again. And the same holiday again – a rented villa with a crowd of friends. From year to year the locations vary, and the friends vary, and the children grow up, but its character is unchanged, lazy and unadventurous. We lizard by the pool all day then play cards into the night, we complain about the heat and bask in the light, the days tick by so slowly you barely notice, moving inexorably towards dinner and someone saying: “I think it’s finally cooling down a bit? Possibly?” It’s chatty, boozy and booky – everything I like, and the only dilemma is the number of books I’m allowed to take, and how to choose them.

I like those double-page spreads of holiday reading recommendations, and I always look at them, slightly daunted by people who take histories of the Second World War, and slightly challenged by other people who seem so clear about what constitutes a holiday book. Whenever I get asked by magazines for my ideal “beach read” I’m not sure what to say, as I often find that “feel-good” books don’t make me feel good, and “easy reads” aren’t easy to read when my eye is skimming the page with boredom.

All I want is a “good read”, on the beach same as anywhere else. Maybe what we mean is that holiday reading should be all about pleasure. A sunbed is no place for ploughing on with a sense of duty. Leisure makes me thoughtful, being somewhere different opens the mind, freedom from routine and drudgery is inspiring, and wine at lunchtime makes me philosophical, so although some of my reading might be done half pissed in a deckchair, a good book will cut through the haze.

Some years we’re all round the pool with the same books – One Day or Gone Girl – but other years the choice is trickier, and so, with that in mind, I’m going to recommend some holiday reading. I’ve got through a lot of books this year, thanks to judging the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Forward Prizes for Poetry: so here are some tips.

All of the Baileys shortlist is worth your time, and of the ones that didn’t quite make the shortlist I would wave these two in your face – Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, which is a minimalist masterpiece, a profound book disguised as a short and easy read, and At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison, a modern kind of pastoral writing that’s as much about people trying to fit in as it is about the countryside. And the one that broke my heart by not even making the longlist is The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien, although actually, on second thoughts, that might be too grim even for me, on holiday. Read it when you get home, but do read it: the writing is spectacular.

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Or how about poetry? Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection last year, is extraordinarily powerful. I was blown away by her observations on racism, her descriptions of being unseen, and the essay on Serena Williams. I’d also recommend Maura Dooley’s The Silvering, a book of reflective and deceptively simple verse, lyrically beautiful, sharp and observant.

Away from the prizes, I loved Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. Yes, it’s full of death and crows and bereaved children, but it’s funny, too, and full of joyful inventiveness, so I would happily read it on my lounger. Teju Cole’s Open City is cool and thoughtful, if you like feeling cerebral in the sunshine, and Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife is a brilliant satire of literary ambition with a depiction of a marriage that will make you squirm.

As for me, what am I going to take? I’ve gone for Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, with its gorgeous new cover that called to me across the shop, and The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, subtitled Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. I’ll be surrounded by people and hills while I think about urban loneliness. Can’t wait. l

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue