Which books will 14 leading contemporary writers be reading on the beach?
If you’re wondering what to read on holiday this year, let some of the most discerning voices in English writing be your guide
During summer holidays, not much beats hitting the beach with a good book. Ahead of this year’s holiday season, a range of leading writers were asked what books they would recommend readers take with them on their break. From recent releases to classic literature, here are their tips.
I recently reread Anita Brookner’s first novel A Start in Life (Penguin), and it left me thinking that maybe all novelists should be forbidden from publishing until they are 53; that way they would already have a finished style and a mature, cogent, individual view of the world. This nearly faultless novel also reflects on the competing truthfulness of Balzac versus Dickens. (Balzac died at 51, so the Brookner rule can’t apply to him.) But for the moment I am engrossed in Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary Second-Hand Time (Fitzcarraldo), an oral tapestry of post-Soviet Russia.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp) is the monologue of an ordinary man which – skilfully, gradually, tenderly – discredits the meaning of ordinariness. A novel without a single full stop, it is easily the most all-consuming and splendid sentence I have ever read. Mia Gallagher is another Irish writer who deserves greater attention from overseas. Her second novel is as rich in texture as it is vast in reach. Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island) is made up of several voices, from an elderly woman’s memories of Bohemian life in the 1940s to a troubled transsexual in contemporary Dublin.
These two books yanked me in and pulled me under with their first paragraphs. I cannot wait to swim with them deep into the summer. The Tusk that Did the Damage by Tania James (Vintage). An elephant, a poacher, a collision of desperate needs. This novel is going to destroy me completely … I cannot wait. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Corsair). I adore Rabih Alameddine. Now it’s out, I am preparing for a soulful, brilliant, spiced and incredibly delicious feast.
Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (Faber) is a compact and lovely book. Porter thinks around the aftermath of loss through three tight-knit views; a bereaved husband, his sons and the volatile character of Crow, who mediates the experience. His writing inside the heads of the young boys is great. As I’ll be spending time in Scotland this summer, I’m going to get my hands on Another Green World: Encounters with a Scottish Arcadia by artist Alison Turnbull with Philip Hoare (Art/Books 2015). It’s a book of drawing, text and photography about Linn Botanical Gardens, a slice of deep horticultural magic on the Rosneath peninsula in Argyll.
I loved David Szalay’s new novel All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape), a darkly comic exploration of masculinity. Such powerful writing, marvellously exact and penetrating – and all about how we’re mixed up inextricably with the rest of Europe. Apollo has reissued Eudora Welty’s second novel Delta Wedding, and I’m halfway through its exquisite account of a hazy, troubling Mississippi summer in the 1920s. A little girl whose mother has just died goes to stay with her exuberant cousins on their cotton plantation; I can’t imagine why I haven’t read it before, as I’m passionate about Welty’s writing.
As a counterpoint to these dark fictional explorations, I’m greatly enjoying the lucid, reasoning intelligence and vivid character sketches in English Voices (Simon & Schuster), a collection of Ferdinand Mount’s essays on literature and history and politics, that speaks with depth and sophistication to our political moment.
The book that impressed me most recently was Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. It’s an extraordinary book, slim, potent, unquantifiable and extremely companionable, especially, but not only, if the reader has recently been bereaved. Due to be published in late summer is Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians (Faber). This is probably one of the most eagerly awaited books of the year, after her debut, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, shouldered through the ranks of formal, normal prose to remind readers what the novel can do in the hands of a truly gifted, undaunted, visionary writer. Set in the drama circles of London, lit with sexual energy and the quick, synaptic power of McBride’s narrative idiom, her new work looks set to flex this remarkable talent again, and in new ways.
First there is My Name Is Lucy Barton (Random House) by Elizabeth Strout. The narrator of this luminous and surprising book is stuck in hospital due to an undiagnosed illness when her emotionally distant but strangely soothing mother comes to visit. What follows are snippets of gossip, memories and realisations about writing, most of which come back to a central theme of mothers and their failures. Sympathetic, subtle, and sometimes shocking. Before I read SPQR by Mary Beard (Profile), there were myths about Rome I half-remembered and didn’t understand, there were senators and emperors I thought were purely fictional, there were hundreds of years of republic I hadn’t realised were significant. Brilliant for readers like me, whose study of classics was a little stunted or now feels quite distant.
Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking) is a moving, unflinching memoir of a family torn apart by the savage realities of today’s Middle East. The crushing of hopes raised by the Arab spring – at both the personal and national levels – is conveyed all the more powerfully because Matar’s anger remains controlled, his belief in humanity undimmed. Graham Swift’s exquisite, brief Mothering Sunday (Scribner) shows love, lust and ordinary decency straining against the bars of an unjust English caste system. Coming this autumn is a true left-field wonder: Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (Faber), a violent, superbly lyrical Western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making, the most fascinating line-by-line first person narration I’ve come across in years, and at its heart, a tender gay love story.
Books on the go this summer include: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an exquisite novella about a woman in 1890s New Orleans chafing against the strictures of her times; the modern classic Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, about a Berliner in 1940 who embarks on a campaign of sending anonymous anti-Hitler postcards, and the Gestapo officer ordered to hunt the dissenter; Fell by Jenn Ashworth, a fresh, lyrical novel about a sick girl, a faith healer, the woman the girl grew into, the spirits of her parents and unfinished business. In the last week I’ve finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (out in 2017 from Head of Zeus), a deep, broad, addictive history of a Korean family in Japan enduring and prospering through the 20th century; and the new book by Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes (Sceptre) – a poignant, cascading four-part novel about being Asian and Western, about immigrants and natives, about belonging in a country and one’s skin. It’s not out until August, but if your bookseller owes you a favour, cash it in for a reader’s proof. It’s outstanding.
David Szalay’s All That Man Is has all you expect to find in a good novel: a highly distinctive tone, an original structure, excellent pace, and a jaunty wit combined with sombre seriousness: it’s a rich fulfilment of the exceptional promise in his three previous books. Geoff Dyer’s new instalment of essays, White Sands (Canongate), which concentrates on notions of place and placement, has plenty of his trademark shrugging but also (cleverly licensed by this) patches of startlingly rarefied writing as well; the combination makes the whole book compelling. Denise Riley’s new collection Say Something Back (Picador) is a moving reminder that she’s one of the best poets around.
I’ve just finished rereading Dickens’ Bleak House for a talk I’m giving in Aberdeen in a few weeks. Always a pleasure to eavesdrop on Dickens’ wide and wild cast of players. In August I’ll be interviewing some writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which means poring over the latest offerings by musician Tim Burgess, comedian Stewart Lee and thriller writer Frederick Forsyth. After all of which I can get back to the tottering to-be-read pile by my bedside.
For those who savour indignation (one of my favourite emotions), Mark Lawson’s The Allegations is great fun, and it provides at least the illusion of an inside track on the non-fiction backstory. I loved Mark Haddon’s The Pier Falls, whose title story is either perfect beach reading, or perfectly terrible beach reading, depending on your level of perversity.
A non-fiction book about the breakup of a multi-ethnic state and the identity crisis that followed tops my list. Second-Hand Time is a series of first-person testimonies from the former Soviet Union woven into a stunning chorale by Svetlana Alexievich. Thomas Morris’s debut story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber) is mordantly funny and achingly true. The characters are with me many months after reading. I thought Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton was one of this year’s best novels: an intense, beautiful book about a mother and a daughter, and the difficulty and ambivalence of family life.
The Mandibles is a gleeful nightmare, it made me snort with laughter even as I was shuddering
Mike McCormack has always been among the most adventurous and ambitious Irish writers. His novel Solar Bones, written in one single sonorous sentence, tells the story of a family in contemporary Ireland. The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine by Ben Ehrenreich (Penguin) is a result of three years spent going back and forth to the West Bank, living in the cities and villages. It promises to be a good companion piece to Dervla Murphy’s A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza (Eland) and her Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine (Eland), in which one of the wisest travel writers working now casts her penetrating eye on daily life in the Middle East. I found Hisham Matar’s The Return, in which he tells the story of his father’s arrest and disappearance in Libya, riveting.