2021- 2022 Summer Reading
It’s the summer of 2021-2022. Two years into the pandemic in Australia, we’ve somehow managed to lurch to this moment and the view ahead doesn’t look great. Amidst the uncertainty, however, some things are consistent: if like me you’re a reader, you’ll be casting around for books to sink into over the holidays or to start the New Year with. As someone who writes, I have to read a lot and broadly. It follows that recommending books is something of my secret super power. This year, I’m sharing some recommendations from my reading over the past year or two as well as books I’m excited to pick up for my own summer treats. Given our moment, my emphasis is on books that have brought me joy, solace or transportation. But, frankly, the main criteria to be on this list is that the book was such a good read that I found myself completely immersed in it to the exclusion of our unsettling news cycle. Scroll down for reads falling under:
History and politics
Something a bit different
So, here we go.
Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company and Eve’s Hollywood
Eve Babitz was among the literary stars we lost in late 2021, so it’s fitting to recommend her vignette driven novel Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. and autobiographical essay collection Eve’s Hollywood to readers seeking something seriously fun to escape with. Before her death, Babitz enjoyed a deserved contemporary moment with the reissue of her work. One of the great chroniclers of California of the 1960s and 1970s (the other being Joan Didion), her books are redolent with sun, sex, drugs and alcohol and the radiant people of the era. While reading Babitz feels like tumbling buzzed between party to party filled with movie stars, musicians and artists, you’ll do so with the sensual thrill derived from a brilliant prose stylist whose sentences are always precise but surprising (who else could possibly write something as ridiculous and true as, ‘People go through life eating lamb chops and breaking their mother’s hearts’?). The exuberance of Babitz’ anecdotes and prose belie more serious themes: the chaos and disorder wrought by hedonism (but somehow without making hedonism seem any less fun), the subversiveness of queerness, and the links between female creativity and self-actualisation, for example. But you don’t need to read Babitz for those heavier issues – just pour yourself a champagne cocktail, buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Chris Hammer, Scrublands, and Tana French, The Searcher
I love a good crime thriller as a holiday read. I find something relaxing in the way they hold me tense for 350 odd pages before wrapping everything up neatly with a bow. At the same time, there’s almost nothing worse to read than badly written crime fiction. Two well-written thrillers I enjoyed this year were Chris Hammer’s Scrublands and Tana French’s The Searcher.
Fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry will enjoy the bushfire and fly blown atmosphere of Hammer’s book, about the mass murder by a priest of his parishioners at a small Australian town’s Catholic Church. Why would the priest possibly commit such a heinous crime? Or, did he? Washed up journalist Martin Scarsden is on the case. The plot becomes more fantastical as the book goes on, with more double identities, drug runners and sinister vagrants than seem normal for a bush outpost. But - if you want to switch off and page turn for a day on the beach, pick it up. Believability, be damned.
Those looking for something more forest and drizzle-soaked should try The Searcher, in which a burnt out retired American cop buys a plot of land in rural Ireland only to – surprise, surprise – be coopted into trying to find a missing local teenager. Lots of whisky drinking with possibly friendly, possibly menacing locals and tramping through trout-filled streams and up scree-sloped mountains ensues as the mystery is solved. What elevates French’s novels above the norm in crime fiction is her allowance for moral ambivalence in her main characters and resolutions. There’s some of that in The Searcher but, unlike other of her books, not enough to leave the reader feeling uncomfortable which – let’s be honest – none of us need more of right now.
Olivia Laing, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency
Laing’s essay collection Funny Weather was pulled together in the aftermath of Trump’s election and the Brexit vote to make the case for the power of art to create community, to sustain us through dark times and to be a site for radical politics through revealing inequalities and new ways of living. That probably makes this book sound heavy, but it’s anything but. The book is made up of short, eclectic and effervescent essays: biographies of some of Laing’s favourite artists (Georgia O’Keefe, David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Russell and more), meditations on art making, and book reviews (of Sally Rooney, Deborah Levy and Maggie Nelson, for example).
Laing is a highly erudite and engaging writer who is also highly accessible, whether you know the artists and works she writes about or not. Setting aside the political aims of the book, I found it both interesting and deeply pleasurable to learn about the diverse lives and creative practices of artists she admires: the book in itself makes its own case for art as nourishment. What I got from this book in 2021 were small moments of breath. Lord, couldn’t we all use some?
My pick – John le Carré, Silverview
Since reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I’ve loved John le Carré’s cold war spy fiction writing – particularly his keen eye for personal and political moral ambiguity within the context of cold war machinations and state craft. When le Carré passed away in 2020, I was saddened to realise that I wouldn’t read any new work from a writer I started reading at age 18, without realising that his back catalogue would be raided for the posthumous publication this year of Silverview. Even if it’s unlikely to be his best work, I’m looking forward to switching off and relaxing with intrigue and double-crossing among emotionally damaged and restrained British spooks.
Tove Ditlevsen, The Copenhagen Trilogy
I find that the summer is a great time to pick up a book series, to envelop myself in an author’s voice or world in a way that I wouldn’t usually have the inclination or time for. If you’re a literary reader and also looking for a series to pick up, it’d be difficult to go past celebrated Danish poet and novelist Ditlevsen’s memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy. Childhood, Youth, and Dependency were published in English for the first time in 2020 in powder pink covered Penguin Classics editions. Subsequently, the trilogy was voted one of the best books of 2021 by The New York Times Book Review critics and reviewed by heavy hitter critic Hilton Als in The New Yorker, which gives you a sense of its cultural impact.
The first book charts Ditlevsen’s childhood to adolescence in the then impoverished Vesterbro neighbourhood of Copenhagen amidst the uncertainty of Hitler’s rise in Europe. Ditlevsen is forced to leave school at 14 to find work, but real joy is found in Ditlevsen’s depiction of her pursuit of becoming a poet, escaping her mother’s wish for her to marry a factory worker who doesn’t drink too much. Youth follows Ditlevsen’s increasing success as a published poet, to the point where she is able to cast off office work, as well as her two early marriages among the bohemian set of Copenhagen. The omnipresent contest between Danish Hitler-sympathists and communists provides the historical backdrop. Be warned - there’s a shift in content in the final book. Dependency is an account of Ditlevsen’s discovery of opioids and descent into addiction, facilitated by her lover then third husband (the word ‘dependency’ also translates to ‘married’ in Danish), before the sickening marriage ends. Don’t read it if you need an uplifting book.
Dependency is devastating because of Ditlevsen’s ability to be clear-sighted and unpitying about the self-betrayal of her addiction. All three books are exceptional because of Ditlevsen’s same writerly commitment to exactitude. In the human messes she depicts, you can’t escape the sense that she has achieved something greater than herself in her singular ability to write about them in what are works of genius. That creative commitment takes unflinching self-loyalty, producing a compelling tension between some of the heartache depicted in Ditlevsen’s pages and the experience as a reader of being propelled through her great achievement.
Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know, The Cost of Living and Real Estate
Levy’s Cost of Living trilogy is in my mind as a recommendation because its joyful and contemplative last book, Real Estate, was published this year. However, it’s not overstating it to say that reading its second book The Cost of Living was what made me seriously aspire to start writing several years ago. In retrospect this is unsurprising, because the trilogy is a memoir of a writer’s life, looking at themes of what it means to be a female writer and the connection between the act of writing and self-realisation. All of that probably sounds a bit pretentious and exclusive of people who aren’t writers, but please be assured if you pick this trilogy up to read - that’s not the case!
Before I considered her writerly themes as they applied to my own life, I fell in love with Levy’s masterly sentences, anecdote driven and wryly funny descriptions of people, places and the workings of her mind. Levy is damned good company and her memoirs are enjoyable for depicting an interesting and humorously observed life. Things I Don’t Want to Know shows Levy’s childhood in apartheid South Africa, move to England as a teenager and realisation that she wanted to become a writer. The Cost of Living follows Levy restarting life and setting up with her daughters in an entertainingly decrepit London apartment block after her divorce and the blossoming of creative freedom. Real Estate travels with Levy to Paris where she undertakes a writer’s residency in a tiny flat in the 18th arrondisement: it’s a gratifying book, particularly for Australian readers longing to escape somewhere new. Each of the books can be read standalone.
Throughout the trilogy, there’s constant interplay between the immediate sensual realities and pleasures of Levy’s life – decorating, clothes, shopping, food, visiting friends and travel – and her reflections on the female writers who influenced her. While through the latter Levy maintains an eye on contextualising her own life and writing in feminist and cultural theory, it’s done with a light touch. Living and thinking about her life are interwoven because that’s just the way Levy lives. Spending time with Levy’s trilogy reminds me to pay close attention to the pleasurable and to have faith in our constant ability to rewrite our own stories towards something more fulfilling. I can think of fewer better ways to start 2022.
My pick – Ben Lerner, The Topeka School trilogy
Most people who read pretentious literary magazines (okay, I’m one of them) and most people who’ve actually read American poet and novelist Ben Lerner seem to agree that he is some kind of genius. Despite this and enjoying every short piece of his I’ve read and interview with him I’ve listened to, I haven’t actually read his auto-fictional Topeka School trilogy, which riffs on themes as varied as the line between fiction and fact, friendship, the ridiculousness of the art world, toxic masculinity, and high school debating. This has to do with the fact that when I lived in Washington D.C. I went on a date to a record fair with an American hipster, who was dressed like an extra in Inside Llewyn Davis and told me that his favourite book was Leaving The Attocha Station (the first book of the Topeka trilogy) by a little known poet. Ben Lerner was not little known and the whole thing felt about as clichéd as toxic white males whose favourite authors are Foster Wallace or Easton Ellis. I’ve had a hang up about reading Lerner ever since. I’ve gotten over this and started my 2021-2022 holiday by reading - and really enjoying - the trilogy’s second book 10:04, in which Lerner’s stand-in narrator Adam Gordon tries to write a book and have a baby with his best friend. Let’s just say that I’m very happy to continue onwards with my aim to read the trilogy over this summer.
History and politics
Andrew Marantz, Antisocial: How Online Extremists Broke America
Say you’d like a book that stretches your knowledge on politics or history but not something so dense in content, small-printed and footnoted that it puts you to sleep in the summer heat: I have some recommendations for you. New Yorker writer Marantz’ Antisocial starts at a party with Proud Boys and 4chan ‘shitlords’ celebrating Trump’s election at the Trump Hotel in Washington D.C., and continues at a page-ripping pace through encounters with men’s rights activists, neo-Nazis, alt-right bloggers and Silicon Valley tech-utopians. What each surreal encounter adds up to is a compelling case that the unrestricted internet has created a new far-right coalition who have exploited free speech to spread misinformation and radicalise a significant enough proportion of Americans to undermine America democracy. Whether you ascribe to that view or not, Marantz’ book is a fascinating socio-cultural history of the relationship between the far right and internet culture and the companies that have enabled it. It might just keep you up at night.
Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars
If you’d like to read about something more genteel than the American far right and are interested in feminist history, I’d highly recommend Wade’s Square Haunting, a group biography of novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Dolittle), economic historian Eileen Power, Oxbridge classic historian Jane Ellen Harrison and crime fiction novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. What unites the group is that all women lived on Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, close to the British Museum and British Library, between the two world wars. It was a still a time when it was unusual for women to live alone but the Square provided a ‘room of one’s own’ for each woman to think, learn and make their own way in life: something radical at the time. Square Haunting is written in a mannered style but ultimately creates an intellectually inspiring and poignant picture of the curiosity and strength each woman showed in eking out new ways of living and interesting careers in an inhospitable time.
Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
One of the best books I’ve read over the past few years – actually, probably the decade - is investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing. Radden Keefe uses the enforced disappearance by the IRA of mother of ten Jean McConville in 1972 as the starting point to examine the thirty-year odd long Troubles, the conflict over the status of Northern Ireland.
Radden Keefe’s reporting works on several levels: as the uncovering of the mystery of who within the IRA was responsible for disappearing McConville and why, and an examination of the impact on her family; as a cultural history of the guerilla war wrought by the IRA against the British and its impact on the people fighting, including after the peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement; as a biography of many of the key political players (including Gerry Adams); and as an examination of the contemporary impacts of collective trauma and moral injury in a society which has not fully reckoned with the history and consequences of the Troubles. Radden Keefe’s capacity to pull together disparate and detailed information to create a compelling and accessible landscape is incredibly impressive. It makes him one of the best non-fiction writers working today. I didn’t need a background knowledge or particular interest in the subject matter for it to be an engrossing, stay up past midnight, type of read.
My pick – Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain
After saving it on my bedside table for months for holiday reading, I’m currently devouring Radden Keefe’s blistering follow-up to Say Nothing, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. The book traces the history of the phenomenally wealthy and now controversial Sacklers: from the origins of their wealth in marketing Valium; to their involvement in the arts and philanthropy; to their development and advertising of painkiller OxyContin (the drug responsible for America’s opioid crisis), while ignoring evidence of its liability for abuse. The brilliance in taking this long view is the ability to trace the same practices and worldview – misuse of money and power to the family’s ends, willful disregard for the consequences in human suffering of untrammeled money-making – across three generations of the Sackler family. Empire of Pain won the prestigious Baillie Gifford Prize for best Non-Fiction in 2021 and has all the hallmarks of Say Nothing: extensive research woven into a rich and complex contextual landscape, while managing to read like a page-turning thriller. I don’t know how Radden Keefe does it but I want more – whatever topic his next book is on.
Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts
If like me you love to travel but have spent most of the past two years locked down and grounded, it’s delightful to engross yourself in the experience of being in a foreign country through a book. For readers looking for the same, I recommend Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, which follows the day-to-day existence of a middle-aged female academic living alone in an unnamed Italian city. The narrator’s solitude produces a series of tightly observed interactions with the city and its people, with friends, neighbours, piazzas, shops and meals described so close you can feast on your visualisation of them. When we’re lonely - which Lahiri’s narrator is sometimes - interactions take on more significance than they would otherwise and my feeling is that that is what these snippets of a city amount to in this book. As a result, a warning that readers who thrive on plot driven writing won’t enjoy this book: this is for a read that will take you somewhere - somewhere you can taste the strong black coffee or chilled white wine on your lips - but without any end in mind.
Garth Greenwell, Cleanness
Greenwell’s Cleanness was one of my best reads of 2021. United by the narrative voice of a middle-aged gay American man who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, working as a high school English language teacher, Greenwell’s stories in Cleanness explore the narrator’s search for sex, love and connection as a foreigner in a country in which homosexuality is demonised. Greenwell’s writing is precise and dispassionate which achieves the same effect as reading Hemingway – his control leaves the reader aching with the emotion that underlies his stories: senses of beauty, desire, longing and loneliness. I’ve chosen Cleanness for this ‘armchair travel’ category not so much because it makes Bulgaria look like an interesting place to go but because all the stories embody the unique feeling of travelling, particularly alone. Of being an observer, and the otherness this imposes on our relationships with place and the people we meet: what unite the stories is an exploration of longing for intimacy. Many of these stories are intensely, sometimes disturbingly, erotic: prepare to feel some frisson.
My pick – Annie Ernaux, I Remain in Darkness or Exteriors
One of the great discoveries in my reading life of the past few years has been French memoirist Annie Ernaux. A grande dame of literature in France, Ernaux’ writing has only recently begun to be published in English in (very lush looking) Fitzcarraldo Editions. Ernaux’ writing works with the unreliability of memory to grapple with big, interesting topics. She transports the reader to explore French history, place and sensibility: a personal and collective history of France from 1946 to 2001 (in The Years); the examination of all-consuming love and sexual passion, for a married man (in Simple Passion); the ascent of a French working class man to discomfort in the mannered, educated bourgeois existence of post-war France, through a moving account of her relationship with her father (in A Man’s Place). Ernaux’ writing is vignette driven, working like an impressionist painting in that over the course of a book short pieces build up to something true but slightly wonky feeling: that is, thought provoking without being too intense. I’m hoping to pick up either Ernaux’ I Remain In Darkness or her newly published Exteriors, if the UK and Australian postal systems cooperate with Fitzcarraldo Press headquarters (which sometimes they unfortunately don’t).
Something a bit different
Bella Li, Argosy
There was a point in 2021 where I didn’t really feel like reading anything: ‘Words, words, words’, as Hamlet would say. When that happened, I picked up Bella Li’s Argosy, a hybrid collection of surrealist collages augmented by short prose poems and essays. While Argosy has been heralded as moving forward Australian and international poetics, really all I cared for were Li’s beautiful, sumptuous and weird collages, which often rectify historic works of exoticising colonial art. I read a review in which Argosy’s effect was described as hallucinatory and don’t think I could put it better. I was transported for hours paying close attention to the intricacies of Li’s collages: if words are too much at the moment, you might enjoy doing the same.
My pick – Omar Musa, Killernova
With full disclosure, I caught the bus to highschool every day with Musa from our much maligned hometown Queanbeyan (unkind moniker ‘Struggletown’). From afar, it’s brilliant to see Musa become one of Australia’s acclaimed young creative polyglots (poet, novelist, playwright, performer, visual artist). Like Li’s Argosy, Musa’s new poetry collection Killernova is a hybrid work. It mingles poems with woodcuts, inspired by Musa’s Borneo roots. For more than parochial reasons, I’m looking forward to the same transportative feeling in Killernova that came from poring over Li’s combination of words and artwork.
Still looking for something literary to do over the holidays? For my part, I’ll be listening to the podcast Literary Friction’s 2021 wrap-up episode, in which hosts Carrie Plitt and Octavia Bright return to their 2020 reading resolutions, go over their favourite reads of the year and the books they’re looking forward to in 2021. Carrie and Octavia’s smart conversations about books and interviews with authors, and their obvious friendship, have gotten me through two lockdowns when seeing my own friends wasn’t easily possible. It doesn’t seem likely in Australia now that they will have to get me through a third, but it’d be remiss of me not to sing their praises. With the warmth and intimacy characteristic of each podcast episode, they’ve almost come to feel like friends.