Six books I’m reading this summer

Every year, the sun comes out (eventually) and along with it, a desire to lie with my nose in a good book for hours on end. Each summer I usually get through a good 5-10 books, and have decided to start documenting them.

I’m the kind of person who likes to have several books on the go simultaneously – I like carrying a small one around with me, a fatter one at my bedside, and another to dip into now and then. The result is a mental explosion of sorts as these various sources of inspiration seep into my mind.

This year it’s a bit of a mishmash: Middle Eastern feminism from kick-ass Mona Eltahawy; my first attempt at tackling a novel from the Russian literary Golden Age; a peaceful semi-autobiography set on a remote island in Scandinavia.

Freakonomics (2005) by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

This book has been lingering in the back of my mind for ages, after seeing it lying on my father’s bedside table years ago. A conversation with my friend Shannon while travelling prompted me to finally order my own copy, and I’ve just finished a revised edition which includes a section with posts from the Freakonomics blog, as well as post-original publication amendments and updates.

All I can say is READ IT. Although it’s a little USA-centric for my liking, it’s full of fascinating facts which are applicable in other countries too. And the fact that it was written over a decade ago doesn’t lessen its impact. It’s pure entertainment, and I was hooked from the opening pages. The writers are very intelligent and witty, and the writing style is easy to follow.

Freakonomics has noticeably altered my thinking; it explains behavioural phenomenons so well, you’ll find yourself questioning everything around you. I spent the week which it took for me to read it going around telling everyone about ‘incentives’ (one of the book’s main premises is that human behaviour is always, always motivated by incentives – both positive and negative). Whether it’s the similarities between sumo wrestlers and teachers (really), how children’s names affect their chances of success, or the impact that Roe v. Wade had on crime rates two decades later, the combination of humour and sound analysis has you wide-eyed with amazement.

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Perusing books at the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris [2010]
The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Janssen

In a word, this short book is adorable. The Finnish creator of The Moomins also wrote adult fiction, and it turns out it’s wonderful. The Summer Book tells the story of an elderly woman and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, who spend the summer months on a remote and tiny island in the Gulf of Finland.

The relationship between Sophia and her grandmother is unsentimental yet strong; every moment they share is simultaneously simple yet meaningful. Their love for one another and the death of Sophia’s mother, which haunts the book, are the only things absent from conversation between the two. They talk about everything, they fight, they curse one another and they explore.

It’s easy to read and relate to; mostly, it just made me want to find my own remote Finnish island and escape there for a summer. At risk of giving me intolerable itchy feet, I still feel that any book that makes me want to travel is worth reading.

I decided to pick it up from my parents’ bookshelf upon returning from a four-day trip to Copenhagen (my first time in Scandinavia). Having fallen for the city and its people, I wanted to absorb as much of Scandinavian culture as possible, and reading literature is a fantastic way of doing this. (OK – so Finland isn’t *technically* part of geographical Scandinavia. But Janssen was part of a Swedish-speaking minority there, so let’s just say it counts.)

According to this review on the Guardian:

‘”[Janssen] lived alone on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, where most of her books were written,” it says in the Puffin biographical paragraph inside the Moomin books. The more adult truth is that she lived with her lifelong partner, the artist and professor Tuulikki Pietilä; they spent their winters in Helsinki and, until they were too old to do so, their summers on the small unpopulated Finnish islands that Jansson and her family discovered and cultivated.’

This is a masterpiece of solitude and quiet reading, and true to its title, it’s perfect for summer.

Angels in America (1993) by Tony Kushner

‘Night flight to San Francisco. Chase the moon across America. God! It’s been years since I was on a plane!

When we hit 35,000 feet we’ll have reached the tropopause, the great belt of calm air. As close as I’ll ever get to the ozone.

I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air and attained the outer rim, the ozone which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening …

But I saw something only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things:

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead of people who’d perished from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls. And the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.

Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.

At least I think that’s so.’

– Harper, Angels in America: Part II, Perestroika, Act V Scene 10

I was inspired to pick this up when researching a beautiful scene from the most moving film I’ve seen so far this year: Still Alice. (Not only is Julianne Moore amazing, by the way, but I have serious respect for Kristen Stewart after having watched some of her recent films. I didn’t like her that much in her Bella Swann days, but I think she’s chosen some really interesting roles since departing from the Twilight saga, and I find her opinions on fame and being a woman very refreshing.)

Anyway, I was captivated by this final scene – it’s not only incredibly moving in itself, but I took particular interest in the quote. A quick Google search brought up its origin, and I ordered the play immediately. I’ve also combed the net trying to find a place where I can watch it being performed, but haven’t succeeded yet.

This play is full of the kind of magic and supernatural presence which needs to be brought to life on stage. I found myself aching at the subject matter, reminding me of Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran – a bittersweet, melancholy story of gay life in New York City pre-AIDS crisis. Although Angels in America is set in the mid-1980s when the crisis was at its peak, it features similarly irreverent humour to Holleran’s novel and is infiltrated with contemporary racial, religious and governmental references that render its message highly political.

Angels won numerous awards including a TONY Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it’s not hard to see why – even when only reading what was meant to be performed. It’s symbolic, critical, and very clever; the characters are sympathetic, their language poetic. The theme is tragic; the conclusion is ultimately positive. Anyone interested in LGBT history, in particular, needs to read this.

Worth noting: this scene from Still Alice rolls smoothly into end credits which are accompanied by a stunning song: a cover of Lyle Lovett’s ‘If I Had a Boat’ by Karen Elson. Listen below:

The Shipping News (1994) by E. Annie Proulx

I bought this after re-watching Brokeback Mountain for the first time since I was about 11. I was utterly bowled over by the emotion it brought out in me; it’s an epic, phenomenal love story with an aching aesthetic and lonely take on the human condition. It’s made even sadder for the fact that the brilliant Heath Ledger is no longer in the world.

After researching the film’s background, I found out that it was based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. I looked her up, and decided I wanted to see more by this intriguing author.

The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as a host of other awards. I haven’t started it yet, and in fact know very little about it; but I’m really excited about reading it.

Headscarves & Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) by Mona Eltahawy

Egyptian-American activist and feminist Mona Eltahawy is a true force of nature. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing her speak, it’s worth making time to do so, such as in this clip on BBC Woman’s Hour. She’s a phenomenal speaker, as well as a compelling writer, and I’ve had her book earmarked ever since she announced its publication on Twitter.

So upon its release this April, I was itching to get my hands on a copy, and ordered one as soon as I was back in the UK after my travels. I am yet to turn the first page, however, as I want to give it my full attention – I’m therefore waiting until I go away next week, when I’ll have more spare time.

I’m well-acquainted with Eltahawy’s strong opinions on women’s rights in the Middle East, North Africa and the West, and I feel no qualms in recommending anything she lends her name to (even if I haven’t read it yet!). I just know it’s going to be a well-argued, informative and, at times, chilling read – and it feels especially pertinent in a time when the region seems to become more turbulent by the day. One of Eltahawy’s most memorable arguments is what she has described as the ‘gender apartheid’ in Saudi Arabia; I hope she’ll expand on this in the book.

The thing I love a lot about Eltahawy is that she provides a lens through which Western feminists can understand – at least in part – the lives of our female counterparts in Middle Eastern countries. Although I’m sure some may disagree, I feel that she’s an authentic and reliable voice for women in a part of the world which is often talked about in a derogatory and misunderstood way. She helps me challenge my own misconceptions and brings silent horrors to life.

Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

I bought this book in the world-famous Powell’s, the largest independent bookstore in the world, when travelling through Portland, Orgeon, six weeks ago. I had a very heavy backpack and limited myself to buying one book only: this was cheap, and it’s considered such a classic, so I couldn’t resist.

The first 100 or so pages were pretty exciting, as the main character, Rodya (though confusingly, all characters have multiple nicknames), builds himself up to committing a brutal murder – but I have to say I have struggled since then. At first I thought it was maybe a bad translation, but the rambling narrative in this unabridged version is true to the original, and it’s damn difficult to get your teeth into. As I’ve found with English literature from the 19th century, descriptions are often long and seem unnecessary to the plot. I’m on page 300 or so now (of 400), and the plot, in fact, has seemed not to progress at all. I’m not going to give up, but be warned: this is not for the faint-hearted…

Sonia exploring in Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon – the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world. [June 2015]

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