Books for the beach – and the brain – this summer
John Banville, Kathleen MacMahon, John Boyne, Joseph O’Connor and more on what they’ll be reading
So far this year I’ve enjoyed the debut novel by Rebecca O’Connor, He Is Mine and I Have No Other, about secrets, youth and silence in rural Ireland, Emilie Pine’s frank and visceral essay collection Notes to Self, and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which depicts the wrongful imprisonment of a young black man in the American south, and the effect of this trauma on his marriage. I’m looking forward, over the summer, to reading The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen, a debut about “letter detectives”, as well as The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (a novel set in art-world Chicago during the Aids epidemic), Sharp by Michelle Dean (a group biography of “women with opinions”, including Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion and Hannah Arendt) and the novel My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, described as “satire meets slasher”, and set in present-day Nigeria.
I know it was published last year, but all the same I am going to choose Anthony Powell, by Hilary Spurling. I have just discovered Powell’s immensely subtle and entertaining novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, and am glad I did, before it became too late and I had to quit the dance floor. So closely does Powell mirror his life in his novels that often while reading Hilary Spurling’s biography I felt I was back, blissfully, in his fictional world.
John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism will clear the salt stains from your fingers and the sand from your ears. No one writes about human folly with such measured wisdom as does Gray, and his latest book is like a cool shower on a hot day. His atheists range from Nietzsche to Ayn Rand, from John Stuart Mill to the Marquis de Sade, with a few sideswipes at Richard Dawkins and his fellow evangelists. Gray’s thoughts on the subject of nonbelief are highly original and bracing. This is one of the best of his many splendid books.
I haven’t stopped talking about Anna Burns’s astonishing Milkman. The voice is dazzling, funny, acute. You find yourself somewhere that is Belfast and is also its own elsewhere. Her characters are at the same time delineated with laser clarity and shadows of their own meaning. Like all great writing it invents its own context, becomes its own universe.
I’m planning to read books that don’t exist yet, like Nicole Flattery’s first collection of stories. I’m going to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged again to see if it is just as evil a text as it felt when I first read it, and to figure out how it became so influential. Then I’m going to hunt through the catalogues of New Island, the Stinging Fly and other local publishers for evidence of what feels like a gathering force, a second wave of new Irish writers, to get rid of Rand’s taint.
The Vogue by Eoin McNamee will be published by Faber & Faber in October
Maebh Long’s terrific edition The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien is a real joy. Of all the great Irish writers, O’Brien has been the most mysterious, his personality hidden behind multiple personae. The letters don’t quite reveal a “true self”, if he ever had one, but there is enough of his many selves here – from the playfully brilliant to the crankily cantankerous – to bring us a least a bit closer to the humanity behind the genius.
You need plenty of time for the 2,800 pages of the monumental new Cambridge History of Ireland, superbly edited by Tom Bartlett. I haven’t got through it all yet but enough to stick with its brilliantly lucid mapping of a 1,500-year-long journey.
I’m itching to get stuck into Caoilinn Hughes’s novel Orchid & the Wasp, which from first glances looks like it might be the smart, funny, scathing and profound take on the whole Celtic Tiger madness we’ve been waiting for.
And as Peter Carey is one of the writers who can generally be relied on to conjure a whole world into which you can sink and lose yourself, I’ll also be taking his latest novel, A Long Way from Home, with me.
I have been gradually reading my way through Zadie Smith’s new nonfiction collection, Feel Free, enjoying her take on everything from libraries to joy. Sometimes books are so lauded that I’m reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. It has taken me a while to get to Maggie Nelson’s acclaimed The Argonauts, but I am here now, and it is a wonder of a book, part memoir, part philosophical journey, Nelson’s writing is electrifying and thought-provoking. And then there are books you buy as soon as you can; Amy Bloom is one of my favourite fiction writers and I’ll be packing her new novel, White Houses, as a holiday treat. And I’ll also have Lullaby by Leïla Slimani in my carry-on, a French novel I’ve been curious to read.
This year I read and really enjoyed Sharp by Michelle Dean. Subtitled The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, it’s a collection of essays on writers such as Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron and my favourite, Joan Didion. Interesting and entertaining, like its subjects. Not so much fun, in fact positively hair raising, is Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa by Paul Kenyon. It’s an exhaustive analysis of corruption, embodied in the careers of Mugabe, Gadafy, Nigeria’s Abacha, and many others. I’m looking forward to Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr, who died in March. It’s another of the Bernie Gunther series, which were set during and just after the second World War. Jim Crace’s The Melody is also waiting to be read. A favourite writer who never disappoints.
Julie Parsons’s latest novel, The Therapy House, is now available in paperback
Colm Keegan’s Don’t Go There is one of my favourite poetry collections, and his latest, Randomer, should be read by everyone. Colm’s work is powerful, seething, insightful, funny, sublime, often in the same line. Essential reading for fans of contemporary poetry.
David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land is a tense, thrilling, strange and profoundly moving study of parenthood. There isn’t a wasted syllable in this short, beautiful book.
I’m looking forward to sitting down with Available Light, Maria McManus’s fourth collection of poetry, published by the legendary Alan Hayes of Arlen House.
I also have Emer Martin’s The Cruelty Men on my desk, which promises to be an exhilarating, illuminating, unflinching portrait of, as Irvine Welsh puts it in his blurb, “fucked-up Irishness”.
The two best books I’ve read so far this year are both about troubled young men who set out on quests to overcome the adversity of their early lives: Don’t Skip out on Me, by Willy Vlautin, is set in Nevada; The Shepherd’s Hut, by Tim Winton, in Western Australia. Both are tender stories, masterfully written.
The one I’m looking forward to reading next is Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Based on the story of Antigone, it’s about two British Muslim sisters whose brother has gone to join the jihad. It comes highly recommended by one of my book gurus. It also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
My holiday suitcase will be full of short stories, from the Stinging Fly Stories anthology to Curtis Sittenfeld’s new collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It. Short stories make perfect beach reading, just right for filling the gap between swims.
The best book I’ve read so far this year is Curtis Sittenfeld’s short-story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It. What connects many of these stories is a sense of how one-sided relationships can be, from marriages, friendships, flirtations and even those between Hillary Clinton and her interviewers. I would also recommend Mary-Lynn Bracht’s novel White Chrysanthemum, a story of family separation in Korea during the 20th century. I learned a lot about Korean culture in this book, but it also has a sweeping story that captivates the reader. Of forthcoming books, I’m most looking forward to AM Homes’s Days of Awe and Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance. Homes is one of the most provocative of American writers, and these stories are sure to be just as impressive as Sittenfeld’s, while a lifetime of reading Tyler makes me know that I’m in for a treat, as she never disappoints.
Leontia Flynn’s The Radio is a brilliant and challenging collection, a set of poems that truly cuts beneath the skin – she is, to use that ever-golden phrase, a poet approaching the peak of her powers.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan imagines the 21st century breaking down into eerie androgyny, new medievalism and ultraviolence – we mightn’t have far to go.
Meanwhile, I’m frothing at the mouth in anticipation of Will Ashon’s Chamber Music: Enter the Wu-Tang (in 36 Pieces), a formally innovative exploration of one of the greatest records of our time; Tidewrack, the brilliant essayist Darran Anderson’s memoir of growing up in Derry; and Sarah Davis-Goff’s debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive, of which much excited word is already a-stirring.
Orchid & the Wasp, by Caoilinn Hughes, is making waves because it is fiercely bright and moves like a bullet train. Benjamin Myers’s The Gallows Pole just won the Walter Scott Prize because it is a phenomenal and highly energised novel about counterfeiting in North Yorkshire.
Later in the year comes what should be Eoin McNamee’s breakout novel, The Vogue; he truly is a master stylist, and deserves to do a Mike McCormack with this radiant book. Everyone should read This Hostel Life, by the heroic Melatu Uche Okorie, published by the heroic Skein Press, the first laureate of the direct-provision catastrophe.
Bernie McGill’s The Watch House is a story of forbidden love set on the island of Rathlin. A young, unhappily married woman finds her life changing when engineers working for Marconi arrive to carry out experiments in the use of wireless telegraphy. The book is a masterclass in how to marry narrative and setting. Sheila Lewellyn’s Walking Wounded explores the trauma inflicted by war and the potentially redemptive power of art. It’s a novel built on meticulous research and is a particularly impressive debut.
This summer I shall read William Trevor’s poignantly titled Last Stories, holding it with the reverence due to something that’s holy. In his short stories he initially tricks us into thinking he’s a skilled miniaturist before, without fanfare or self-congratulation, he unveils the universal. I shall read more slowly than I normally do, in part to savour and in part to postpone reaching the end.
I found myself gripped by Henrietta McKervey’s novel Violet Hill, as rich and smart a piece of historical storytelling as I’ve read in some years. I love her supple vivid writing and would recommend this novel strongly.
Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books is an utter joy, the story of the first internationally important library and the man whose vision it was. It will remind everyone who reads of it of how wonderful libraries and the people who work in them are.
I have been baffled and defeated by EM Forster’s Howard’s End every time I’ve tried to read it, but I’m going to try again (and, I expect, be defeated again) one last time. Our final fling will be this summer.
At Christmas a friend gave me a copy of a remarkable trilogy by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I am looking forward to finishing it over the coming weeks. It may be the only book I’ve ever wanted to read because of its title alone: There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.
Joseph O’Connor is McCourt professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick. His next novel, Shadowplay, will be published in 2019
Danny Denton’s The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow set the bar very high all the way back in January, but as Irish rain is a major character in this mad and tender novel we might need a couple of other options. There’s Sayaka Murata’s fascinating Convenience Store Woman, a tale about a happy misfit that’s equal parts wily and disquieting. Anna Burns’s superb Milkman was well worth the nine-year wait, swiping at rumour and assumption in a Troubles-era community and featuring a cast of menacing cads and droll outcasts. As for me, I’m looking forward to my stablemate Michael Hughes’s second novel, Country, in which the Iliad is reimagined in the Border counties during the peace process of the mid-1990s. And I have no doubt the buzz over Jade Sharma’s Problems will prove justified, given Tramp Press’s reputation as canny risk-takers and tastemakers.
I’ve been waiting for Circe by Madeline Miller for what feels like forever. Since her 2011 debut, Song of Achilles – a queer retelling of the Iliad from Patroclus’s perspective – I’ve been crowing about the wit and magic of Miller’s prose. Circe did not disappoint. It’s a feminist tale of the nymph child of Helios, the sun god, who is exiled for practising witchcraft. Circe lives for hundreds of years, encountering heroes, gods and legends, but it never feels like a Greek mythology lesson. Actually, it feels more like a splashy, gossipy memoir written by a celebrity who has met everyone. I suspect this will by my book of the year, but I’m also hugely enjoying the Pulitzer Prize-winning Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, a slim comic novel about love and ageing that, like a great Muriel Spark, packs a huge amount of emotional labour into a few choice sentences.
In terms of stuff I’m looking forward to, Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott sounds fabulous. It’s the fictionalisation of Truman Capote’s famous betrayal of his female socialite friends, whose confidences he gained over years, before selling their secrets to Esquire. Having said that, the hardback looks so heavy I might have to wait for the audiobook.
Reading Patrick Deneen’s timely Why Liberalism Failed from the left, I can see why conservatives at National Review accused him of crypto-Marxism and why the liberal Guardian accused him of crypto-fascism. He is neither of these things, of course; he’s something closer to a Catholic communitarian who advocates the somewhat underwhelming solution of localism, but these hysterical bad-faith responses are evidence of exactly the subject matter of the book, namely the advanced stage of liberal decline and its ideals of reason, enlightenment and freedom. All of the interesting discussions in the coming years will be about the decline of liberalism, and this is the definitive book on the subject for now, which everyone needs to read and think deeply about. The old liberal order is dying, but the new has yet to be born.
The next book I plan to read this summer is another ambitiously themed one, Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, which tries to make sense of contemporary rage and ressentiment by tracing its roots to the foundations of modernity. I'm also excited about David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Graeber is someone I rarely agree with but always love to read. The post-work society could be very utopian or it could be a trap but the contradiction he seems to draw out is that we've learned to let work give our lives meaning and yet most of the work we do is not meaningful.
Melatu Uche Okorie compares her years living in direct provision to being in an abusive relationship. Her debut story collection, This Hostel Life, feels like a book that needed to be written, which makes it even more satisfying that it’s written so well. I’ve also just read and loved Castles Burning, which was first published in 1996. Magda Denes, who was from a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family, was five when the second World War broke out. Castles Burning describes her years as a hidden child. Ferocious and regularly laugh-out-loud funny, it’s not the memoir you expect it to be. Next up are Lorrie Moore’s essay collection See What Can Be Done and Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You, because I loved his own description of it as a “subversive homage to the novels of Noel Streatfeild and LP Hartley”.
I like to head off into curious spaces for holiday reading. By that I mean books I wouldn’t normally be interested in. I rarely read historical fiction but was intrigued by the loose auto-fictional elements of Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. “I think I was always aware that there were shadows, spaces at the table,” Malik wrote in an article about discovering her grandmother Rene’s clandestine past. When the author was in her 30s her mother told her that Rene hadn’t died young but had disappeared. She had run away from marriage and three kids to work as a landgirl on Starlight farm, where she met and lived with another woman, Elsie, and it seems they remained involved for a long time. Eventually Rene was hauled before the courts for allegedly murdering “Uncle Earnest”, a man who was not really an uncle the women were seemingly tasked to look after him on the farm. Rene is both a gender pioneer and a bit of a horrible wagon for abandoning her kids. The book is not only a whodunnit (or whydidyedoit?) but also a vivid exploration of family secrets uncovered and the effects of trauma, as well as a war story about women working the land and doing whatever they had to do to survive.
The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder, by Sarah J Harris, features a 13-year-old boy with synaesthesia called Jasper Wisham, who sees colours when he hears sounds and is also face-blind. I liked it for the idea alone. I soon got into the boy’s headspace of replacing people with colours and other identifiers – Rusty Chrome Orange and other intriguing character names, such as Dark Blue Baseball Cap Man – with the crux of the book centring around who may have killed his neighbour. A cutesy coming-of-age murder mystery with an intriguing insight into what it is like to live under the veil of autism with some of the senses cut off. An easy early-morning beach read before you horse into the cocktails.
My favourite book of this summer (if not year) as fish food for the brain is Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, an unsurprisingly terrific follow-up to the second part of her autobiographical trilogy on being a writer, a woman, a mother and a daughter. Smart, philosophical and funny. Levy is one of the best British writers of her generation. It really is a wonder to read and devour. The elegance of the sentences made me dizzy and actually jealous. She achieves more in a paragraph than most of us can in an entire page or chapter. It’s made me want to go back and hoover up anything she’s ever written.
This has been a bumper year for writing and new voices. Cork’s Danny Denton is one; his book The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow has been a delight. Peter Carey has returned with another fine novel in A Long Way from Home, proving that he has still got it. Looking forward, there are some wonderful new books to be read on the horizon for me, most notably Kevin Powers’s follow-up to The Yellow Birds, A Shout in the Ruins. Powers, an Iraq war veteran, is the natural heir to the Hemingway mantle, and I cannot wait to read this book. On the Irish front, Eva Ó Cathaoir’s Soldiers of Liberty looks to tell the secret stories of over 1,000 Fenian members. As a lover of Irish history, this will be coming with me on my summer break.
I was very impressed by Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry, a playful, inventive roman-a-clef about an affair between a young assistant editor at a New York publishing house and a celebrated novelist in his 70s who is, very obviously, the late Philip Roth. (Halliday had a relationship with Roth in her 20s, an experience she turns to autofictional ends here.) It’s strange, funny, touching and incredibly sharp book. My summer-reading plans are nebulous at best, but they do include reading Carmen Maria Machado’s story collection Her Body and Other Parts, and Kudos, the final instalment of Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy. I’m also excited to read Nervous States, an exploration of our current crisis of authority, consensus and narrative by the political economist Will Davies, which comes out in September.