Give me 10... SUMMER READS
By Sasha Shuttleworth and Maya Blinkhorn
I find reading in the summer a lot easier than the winter. Something about the settled heat and ensuing stillness of the summer months makes my brain work at a heavily reduced speed and I become far more preoccupied with stories than facts. My mind becomes more interested in mysteries, romances and other people’s lives than my own. For many young people, the summer is a space to read what you like between semesters packed with conscripted texts. I have always followed the somewhat Victorian notion that reading is ‘improving’. These books below (read on overcrowded zero-hour work buses in June, park benches in July and below pine leaves in August) have certainly improved me. - Sasha
1. The Lacuna – Barbra Kingsolver
I cannot give an unbiased synopsis of this book because it’s one of my all-time favourites, so apologies in advance.
From the Pulitzer prize nominated author of the Poisonwood Bible, Flight Behaviour and Homeland, The Lacuna tells the story of a man caught between two nations. Set between the cold grasp of McCarthy’s America and the warm embrace of 1950’s Mexico, the protagonist and compulsive diary keeper, Harrison Shepard, is a problem child for his social climbing mother. As a young adult he begins to work in the house of Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo, also home to Lev Trotsky currently in political exile. He unknowingly throws his lot in with the revolutionaries. The novel, exquisitely visceral, is a masterful account of the delicacy of human relationships. The heart of the novel continuously turns the questions of truth vs public perception as the protagonist is forced to continually move between the two nations.
2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Janet Winterson
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit uses a different sort of storytelling than the novels we are used to reading. It tells the story of Jeanette, adopted and raised in 1970’s England by her extremely orthodox Christian mother and mostly absent father. She is poised to become a missionary, before her relationships outside the church and formal education begin to unravel this plan. Winterson’s character observations are second to none. The plot, largely based on the author's life, is fascinating but it’s the details in the storytelling. The descriptions of the people, the rooms and atmosphere of the town the protagonist is raised in that makes this novel so captivating.
3. The Power – Naomi Alderman
It takes real skill to write a book like The Power. The nuances of sexism, its arbitrary nature and even the nature of power itself are skilfully laid out through a brilliant and original plot. The Power does not preach, it states and then it explores. It takes the lived experiences of women and puts them through an entirely different system (or rather it is posed the novel serves as an analysis of the current system disguised to seem alien and dystopian). Read this book, then read it again. Give it to your brother, pass it out amongst your friends and talk about it; it’s what it’s made for.
4. Night Sky With Exit Wounds – Oceon Veuong
Oceon Veuong is one of the great talents of our generation. This, his first complete collection of poetry published in 2016, takes on the poet’s lot and transforms it into something so unexpected. The themes of war, family, love, grief and melancholia are all here. Breath and cadence take these vicious emotions and guide us though the stories of this young man’s life.
5. The Blind Assassin - Margret Atwood
If you love a great big doorstop novel then The Blind Assassin is the book for you. I was away for a while this summer and only had room for one book, so following my usual logic I found the largest, heaviest book by an author I like and devoured it over the following week. Author of The Handmaids Tale, this novel is one of Atwood's most accomplished to date. Told through present day accounts, newspaper articles and multiple narrators, it tells the story of sisters Iris and Laura. The Assain is a science fiction novel detailing a love affair in conservative upper-class Canadian society. The characters move through the mid 20th century, beginning at the end of the Great War and ending in the 1990s as Iris looks back on her life. It is difficult to explain the novel without giving much away so instead I’ll leave you with a quote from Iris as she begins to put down in writing the events of her life. “You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn't necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind.'”.
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume of Angelou’s seven autobiographies. It beautifully documents her childhood and growing up as a black girl in the American South during the 1930s. Angelou masterfully interweaves heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault and racism with recounts of her childhood and the joy she found in her friendship with her brother, her love of learning and her experiences with love.
At first I admittedly found the book a little heavy going. I read it on holiday and found myself sharing in Angelou’s feelings of devastation and anger at her experiences when really I wanted something a little lighter. I felt this only briefly, however, and this is one of the reasons I recommend the book so highly; it is beautiful and joyous whilst being important and distressing at the same time. Angelou treads a beautifully fine line, contrasting the joys of a childhood spent playing and finding solace in reading and eating sweets with the bleak reality of life under segregation in America.
7.Wild - Cheryl Strayed
In this memoir Cheryl Strayed documents her incredible 1100 mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. In an attempt to heal the hole that her mother’s sudden death left in Strayed’s life, she sets out alone hiking on a long and treacherous journey, hoping to find a sense of clarity and purpose by the end. We learn about Strayed’s traumatic childhood and experiences in flashbacks to her former life. It feels very moving as readers to be taken on this journey and see her eventually rediscover her sense of self and find purpose in her life again.
The empowering nature of this book lends itself to being read during the summer, perhaps whilst on a solo trip or when you feel like your life is in a period of change, which to me is a feeling unanimous with summer. It is definitely ‘one of those books’ which makes you feel a little bit more confident to do your own thing and I would particularly recommend it if you’re feeling low and need some inspiration or a pick-me-up.
8. Educated - Tara Westover
Tara Westover’s ‘Educated’ is a gripping tale of escape from her survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Homeschooled by her mother, this is the tale of a girl growing up in a world without a proper education and therefore a world that is unimaginable to most of us. The story of her upbringing feels so foreign compared to my own and this makes for an amazing and addictive read.
It feels intensely rewarding as the reader witnesses Westover change her own narrative. She escapes from a toxic environment that promotes constant guilt into a world of education and academia where she thrives. Increasingly expedited from her family, Westover movingly depicts her pain at no longer belonging to those she loves so deeply. It is a profound illustration of how family shapes us, and the transformative and enchanting nature of education, which in the end rescues Westover from her dire situation.
9. Animal - Sara Pascoe
Animal is funny, interesting and very sad all in one. In this autobiography Pascoe intelligently offers biological explanations for human, and particularly female, behaviours. Pascoe talks about a range of topics - nothing is off-limits. It feels very reassuring to learn the about how our shared history and biology can affect human nature. From a scientific explanation for the post-coital crush, to an explanation of what fat is and why women are so often at war with their bodies, Pascoe sensitively and hilariously reveals the ways that culture has hurt women by offering a scientific analogy for our behaviour.
At times the book is very personal and reveals a vulnerable side of Pascoe that I was not aware of before. I found the book helped me to feel less irrational and isolated in my own thinking; Pascoe shows the universality of human behaviour by showing how it has been repeated and passed down, beautifully, over the centuries.
10. No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference - Greta Thunberg
Thunberg’s first English book offers an informative, empowering and easy to understand ‘black and white’ overview of the climate crisis and what we should do, as individuals, to turn back the tide on climate change. The book is a collection of her speeches from climate rallies across the world. At times it felt hard not to feel hopeless reading it. Yet by equipping readers with the hard facts of where we’re at and what needs to be done, Thunberg left me impatient to get on the streets and do my part. She reflects on how her Asperger’s is a privilege which has helped her to interpret the world, and therefore see climate change, in a 'black and white' way which allows for no time-wasting or indecision.
I started reading the book whilst sunbathing in my garden during the hottest day ever recorded, three days after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and having just read an article explaining how the British railway system was not built to withstand the temperatures we are facing. It felt like there was nothing more relevant for me to be reading in that moment. Thunberg’s book stops any reader in their tracks that might have slipped into a state complacency about the climate crisis; it is a terrifying and empowering read all in one.
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