Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother, longlisted for the International Booker, has a disabled child at its centre and squares up to dangerous subjects. It is a heartening novel, because though it asks the reader to think hard, it puts its faith in simplicity and love. Neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan offers The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness to put you wise about Havana syndrome and other puzzles: it’s not cheerful, but it is current and it is bracing.
Something new: I very much enjoyed Meg Mason’s witty, affecting Sorrow and Bliss. Something old: I love John Cheever’s stories and am curious to know which have made it into Julian Barnes’s new selection, A Vision of the World.
Yuval Noah Harari
I recently enjoyed Bart Ehrman’s provocative and amusing Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. Ehrman reminds us that the Bible says almost nothing about these mysterious places, and that popular conceptions owe much to the fertile imagination of ancient fantasy writers. These literary inventions have infiltrated the collective consciousness, and reshaped the beliefs and politics of billions of humans to this day.
When I’m most in need of joy, I turn to crime fiction, and everyone who loves crime fiction as much as I do will understand why. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that justice is almost always reliably meted out, and that’s a great comfort. I’m a serial monogamist where crime writers are concerned, and I’m currently passionately attached to Lisa Jewell, whose novels somehow manage to be good-natured, creepy and tense all at once. When her latest, Invisible Girl, finally lands on the doormat, I’ll lie about all day reading and forget all my woes.
My other great love these days is for Carlo Rovelli, who is often called the poet of physics. I have spent much of the pandemic shivering in the back garden at night, looking at the moon and stars, and this has led to my haltingly learning as much physics as I have the capacity to do. Rovelli writes elegant, wondering, enlarging books on time and quantum theory, much in the spirit of a priest bringing the word of God to his congregation, and I’ve found it good for my soul to be confronted with how little I understand the world and everything in it. This summer I’ll read his latest, Helgoland. “What’s it about?” said my father-in-law. “Heisenberg,” I said. “Are you sure?” he said. This is a physics joke, and very funny.
Two American authors have brought me joy recently. The first is Alison Bechdel, whose gorgeous new graphic memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength feels perfectly pitched to meet the nervy uncertainties of our almost-post-lockdown moment. It’s a wise, wry, generous look at selfhood, ageing and mortality, a sort of hymn to transformation, to the importance of forging connections and the necessity of letting things go. And the second is Joan Silber, another compassionate, insightful writer, who deserves to be much better known in the UK. Her previous novel, Improvement, was a luminous study of interconnected lives, and her latest, Secrets of Happiness, out in August, is just as brilliant.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is a very big pleasure. It follows a female journalist in the 1950s, her last roll of the dice, and how the people she meets change her life. It’s very tender, so well done, and feels like the type of book Barbara Pym or Muriel Spark would be writing now. Mrs England by Stacey Halls is a gothic mystery set in a grand house in Edwardian Yorkshire where a nanny realises the family holds a dark secret. It’s highly atmospheric and tense.
The incredible life of Bessie Smith has been captured beautifully in Jackie Kay’s imaginative biography. Kay has been fascinated with the singer ever since she was a young girl and her passion shines through in a book that is unputdownable and unforgettable.
Poetry is always transporting, a country in itself, and a writer I trust to take me there safely is Kayo Chingonyi, whose collection A Blood Condition is a thing of beauty. These poems are deftly rendered and musical, featuring flashes of contrasting worlds – London locales and the Congo basin, the North and the Zambezi River – and disarming, idiosyncratic phrases like “The mind is some next ends”. It’s a pleasure to read such a sure and strident second outing from one of our most celebrated young poets. Also on my reading pile is journalist Arifa Akbar’s beguiling memoir Consumed: A Sister’s Story, about her sister’s death from TB and a childhood straddling London and Pakistan. The story and the writing have an unusual mystery about them, with striking imagery and a relatable insight into the darknesses and half-truths of family life. For someone who doesn’t read memoirs often, this one stands out for its eccentricity and elegiac splendour.
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, a work of autofiction about a Muslim-American playwright who constantly argues with his dad, doesn’t sound like a beach read, but hear me out: this book has the drama and fury and fizz of Real Housewives crossed with the timeless lament of The Great Gatsby. I read it in a fever, swept up in the kind of rapture you fall into when your most audacious friend kicks off on a hilarious, outrageous, but deeply sincere rant.
I loved Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan, about the bond between two Glaswegian friends. It’s full of the invincibility of youth and the grief of losing a dear friend much too soon. Afterparties, by Anthony Veasna So, who died unexpectedly in December, is a cracking collection set among a Cambodian American community. It will be published in the UK in August.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is one of the most joyous novels I’ve read this year, yet I’d never be able to persuade you of that simply by telling you its premise. Martha Friel has been forced to move back in with her parents – an alcoholic sculptor and an unpublished poet – following the breakdown of her marriage to Patrick. Things have fallen apart because of the devastating effects of her long untreated mental illness. This is a novel where things start out bleak and get bleaker, yet it achieves such a fine balance between hilarity and despair that it ultimately recalibrates the reader towards hopefulness. Plus, Martha’s narration is so deliciously acerbic (she describes Patrick’s face the first time they have sex as wearing “the set expression of someone enduring a minor medical procedure without anaesthetic”). If there were any prospect of stuffing a suitcase with books this summer for hours reading beside a pool somewhere, I’d advise you to make room for this.
The Language of Thieves: The Story of Rotwelsch and One Family’s Secret History by Martin Puchner isa book about history, language and culture wrapped up in a detective story about the writer’s hunt to find out what his close relatives did during the Nazi era. At times it’s painful, but full of moments of discovery and revelation. It feels as if the writer is peeling back the skin to reveal Germany. I found it fascinating.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (to be published in the UK in July) is beautifully written, deep and soulful, and imbued with a calm, wise energy. You can read it as a psychological thriller or a philosophical meditation but for me, primarily, it is the quest of a woman, a stranger in a strange city, as she comes to The Hague to escape New York, and struggles with power, inequality, justice, memory and love – or the absence of it. In the quietest way, it is a deeply transformative story.
An Extra Pair of Hands by Kate Mosse is a brilliant read that celebrates both the fragility and resilience of human existence. It sheds light on various forms of humble, gentle heroism that often go unnoticed and remain untold. This is a profoundly moving book and although it deals with difficult subjects, including grief and caring for someone you love, it is ultimately uplifting, inspiring, a tribute to love.
Reading Annalena McAfee’s Nightshade, All About Eve comes to mind: a successful artist takes on a young male assistant who estranges her from those around her. Beautifully written, engrossing and provides insights into both the contemporary art scene and the individual artistic process. I loved each and every brushstroke.
The first time I opened What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter, I gasped with pleasure. Imagine it as a kind of punk cousin to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, liberally illustrated with the most astonishing images of artists, decked out in finery or rags. Porter investigates clothes as a way of refusing to bow to society’s demands, burrowing deep into what the things we wear say about what we want or how we need to live. A fashion critic, he’s intensely attentive to the garments themselves. Andy Warhol in black tie, beloved Levis underneath! Gilbert and George, a living artwork in their suits! Louise Bourgeois’s clothes rail, jammed dangerously close to her cooker! It transported me to somewhere glamorous, exciting, even revolutionary.
For a holiday in Greece without leaving home, the Charmian Clift reissues couldn’t have come at a better time. Eclipsed in her lifetime by her writer husband George Johnston and forever after by her connection to Leonard Cohen (whose talent the couple fostered in the 1960s on Hydra), she makes the best travelling companion. In Mermaid Singing she describes her family’s first year in Greece, on the then impoverished sponge-fishing island of Kalymnos, and in Peel Me a Lotus she charts, with acid wit and moments of brilliant existential clarity, the infancy of a bohemian community before mass tourism changed the islands for ever.
There are two recent satirical books that I couldn’t have loved more, partly for the jokes but also the glimpses of self-recognition. In Second Place, Rachel Cusk’s narrator struggles to be seen, especially by the sadistic artist she invites to stay who refuses to paint her portrait. Her strong, silent husband deals with her clamour for attention by declaring that he speaks to her with his heart. In Katherine Heiny’s brilliant Early Morning Riser, good-hearted Jane has to cope with a husband so generous that he has slept with every woman in town. It’s funny and warm and just what the doctor ordered.