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My Summer Reads (or ‘Life is Too Short to Read a Bad Book’!)

My summer reading is so precious that I start gathering my pile of holiday books as early as Christmas. And I look forward to it like a child at Christmas too, knowing that summer – as it is for many of us – provides our only stretch of real relaxation all year.

Not long now! I write for a living – journalism and journals; I read books for a living for reviews, author interviews, events and festivals, and I honestly can’t imagine a more rewarding and privileged occupation. But when you have to speed-read, maybe a book a day, make notes, think of astute and witty (if only!) things to write or original questions to ask authors (who’ve already been asked every question under the sun) then the pressure’s on. Because however brilliant the book is, reading a ‘work book’ (as I call them) is not a holiday. And when the work book is additionally ‘a complex experimental novel translated from the (….insert foreign language name!)’, set in deeply unfamiliar geographical, cultural and historical territory, then my brain becomes dangerously overstimulated! Championing international literature of all kinds is my profession and I will defend it to the last page (and probably read more of it in a year than I eat hot dinners) but when I picture myself on a sunny mountaintop in Italy, glass of Prosecco in hand, (and now the truth must out), what I am reading is the latest, hottest, bestselling big fat English or American novel. Ah! The familiarity! The luxurious indulgence in words and stories and emotions and places I know!  That slow, summer reading of paper books (no PDFs, proofs, eBooks for me on holiday!). No pressure, savouring the words, gobbling the words (eg.‘Gone Girl’ last summer!). I lose myself. I relax profoundly. I feel nourished by what I read.
However, each year, when I return home after my ‘escape’, and compare my ‘unique’ summer reading binge with friends and colleagues, I realize that I am merely a typical Middle Class Englishwoman, ticking every trend box, falling into every predictable category, buying every ‘recommended summer read’ in our national newspapers and magazines. (To a friend in July 2013: ‘Do you mean you read ‘Gone Girl’ too?!’). More importantly – and this is the point of this blog – what we read in the summer gives you a pretty good idea of current trends and tastes. Most of my ‘predictable books’ are bestsellers for a reason – they are superb. My motto, that ‘life is too short to read a bad book’, holds true all year round – even in the summer.
My growing tower of holiday novels toppled down last week, waiting for that magic moment, holiday. So now another kind of pressure has been created: how can I possibly read all the books I’ve saved up since Christmas?! But help is at hand! The current rush of summer reviews and recommendations in UK media means that even my deeply personal top tips are ‘trendy’!
And because I haven’t actually read these books yet (you may have gathered!), huge ‘thanks’ to The Guardian, Telegraph and Financial Times for their plot summaries.

 

SUMMER BOOKS 2014

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson England, 1910. A baby is born to die – and then born again, and again, and again … Atkinson shuffles a dazzling array of alternative existences for her heroine, who might just change the fate of the world, in her most ambitious book so far. Shortlisted for the Women’s prize, the novel portrays a changing England alongside the horrors of war, with Atkinson’s trademark wit and flourish.

NW Zadie Smith Childhood friends Leah and Natalie have stayed geographically close to the north London estate they grew up in, but their circumstances – and their relationship – have changed dramatically. Whether it’s for the better, whether you can leave behind your background, and why you might want to, are Smith’s themes, worked out rigorously, delicately and minutely in a novel of ambitious structure and scope.

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt “All intellectual and artistic endeavours,” writes the female painter-protagonist of Siri Hustvedt‘s new novel, “even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.” The absence of women artists in the history of painting is an old feminist topic, but it is one The Blazing World approaches head-on. The novel concerns an embittered painter living in New York at the close of the 20th century, whose belief that she has been the lifelong victim of cultural misogyny becomes so intolerable that she decides to take action by persuading three of her male contemporaries to show her work under their own names.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel is set in Victorian New Zealand. ‘How opaque, the minds of absent men and women! And how elusive, motivation!” So exclaims the narrator of Eleanor Catton’s irresistible second novel. Four years ago her debut, The Rehearsal, about a sex scandal at a New Zealand high school, won her a cache of nominations and prizes, but hardly foretold the startling gear shift that has given us this historical suspense novel, which won her this year’s 2013 Booker prize, aged just 28.

Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Over 13 years, Ifemelu has built up a solid life in the US, not least because of her incisive, witty blog about matters of race and culture. But homesickness has led her back to Nigeria, where she will also find her childhood sweetheart, Obinze. Will their wildly different experiences mean they have nothing to say to one another?

Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan Nice, middle-class Serena Frome is undoubtedly brainy, but it’s her beauty that wins her a job in the boys’ club that is MI5 in the 1970s. Her mission is to recruit – without his knowledge – an up-and-coming young novelist and turn him into a useful mouthpiece for the establishment. McEwan has fun sending up both literature and espionage, and the twisty narrative will enthral fans of Atonement.

Instructions for a HeatwaveMaggie O’Farrell The gloomier and damper this summer becomes, the more we might yearn for 1976, when a heatwave melted the tarmac and left the earth parched. O’Farrell recreates the sweltering, oppressive atmosphere and tosses into it the abrupt disappearance of an expat Irish paterfamilias that throws his wife and three adult children – their relationships already strained – back into one another’s orbit.

MaddAddam Margaret Atwood The post-apocalyptic trilogy that Atwood began with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood reaches its conclusion in August, returning us to the world of the Crakers, benign bio‑engineered humanoids, the religious environmentalists God’s Gardeners and our original protagonist, Snowman. It’s a complex, brilliantly realised world – and there’s a handy summary of the first two books.

CanadaRichard Ford “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” With an opening line like that, you know you’re going to be in for something special; and Ford duly delivers a bravura tale about a teenage boy in flight from his past, propelled ceaselessly forward to the promised safety of the Canadian border.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt The Goldfinch (Abacus), Literary people can be snooty about yet this is a book written for the reader’s sheer pleasure. There is plot – and then some. There are memorable characters. There is sharp writing. There is even a deep philosophical bit at the end. Indeed, the book was such a treat that I am left bereft on finishing it. I have turned to Philip Roth, knowing he hardly ever disappoints. But halfway through American Pastoral, I find the sacrilegious thought crossing my mind: couldn’t he take a leaf out of Tartt’s book and write more for the reader and less for himself?

Bark – Lorrie Moore Sixteen years since her last volume of stories and five years since her last novel, Moore returns with what our reviewer called a “collection of taught, coherent, breathtaking enchantments”. On the surface these eight stories revolve around ordinary people and their familiar discontentments, yet Moore’s gift is to question just what “ordinary” means or if, indeed, it really exists.

The Lie – Helen Dunmore Cornwall, 1920, early spring. A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family. Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life. Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him. He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

Rosie Goldsmith

Rosie Goldsmith ist eine britische Multi-Media Journalistin. Sie ist im Bereich der Kunst und Internationalen Angelegenheiten spezialisiert und hat auf der ganzen Welt an führenden Sendungen von BBC Radio gearbeitet. Außerdem spricht sie mehrere Sprachen, präsentiert und sitzt diversen öffentlichen Veranstaltungen vor und ist Vorstandsmitglied bei ELit Literaturhaus Europa.

Rosie Goldsmith is a British multi-media journalist with specialist knowledge of arts and international affairs. She has worked across the world on some of BBC Radio’s flagship programmes, speaks several languages and chairs and presents public events. She is member of the ELit Literaturehouse Europe's board.

Rosie Goldsmith ist eine britische Multi-Media Journalistin. Sie ist im Bereich der Kunst und Internationalen Angelegenheiten spezialisiert und hat auf der ganzen Welt an führenden Sendungen von BBC Radio gearbeitet. Außerdem spricht sie mehrere Sprachen, präsentiert und sitzt diversen öffentlichen Veranstaltungen vor und ist Vorstandsmitglied bei ELit Literaturhaus Europa.

Rosie Goldsmith is a British multi-media journalist with specialist knowledge of arts and international affairs. She has worked across the world on some of BBC Radio’s flagship programmes, speaks several languages and chairs and presents public events. She is member of the ELit Literaturehouse Europe's board.

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