My 20 Books of Summer 2023

Here’s my summer reading list, now I’m all set up to take part again in Cathy’s annual 20 books of summer challenge.

My first five selections were inspired by reading The Shelf, a 2014 book by Phyllis Rose subtitled Adventures in Extreme Reading. I’ve been much-derided for enjoying this book by my children – reading is hardly bass-jumping – but the premise really appeals to me. Rose went to the New York state library, and picked a shelf (almost) at random, pledging to read her way through it. The book was a fascinating exploration of the results of this exercise, and took her away from reading directed by reviews, hype and the canon.

So, off I went to Dulwich Library in South London, and picked up 5 random books off the very first shelf, comprising authors from ABB to ALL.

I know next to nothing about these books, and have previously read only one of the authors (Megan Abbott’s Dare Me).

  • 1, A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi
  • 2, The Turnout by Megan Abbott
  • 3, Black Wolf by G. D. Abson
  • 4, Things that Fall from the Sky by Selja Ahava
  • 5, The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa

The following five books have effectively been selected in the opposite fashion and by diktat, from books on my TBR that are included on the unofficial canon, the 1001 books to read before you die list. So we have:

  • 6, London Fields by Martin Amis (I read and loved the hilariously repugnant Money)
  • 7, The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
  • 8, Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev
  • 9, Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
  • 10, The Life of Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

Then five hardbacks, mostly recent, to help clear my teetering piles of over-sized books:

  • 11, Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy
  • 12, French Braid by Anne Tyler
  • 13, All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley
  • 14, On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  • 15, A House for Alice by Diana Evans

Then five random books from my TBR (with possible alternatives for some):

  • 16, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
  • 17, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (or alternatively one of the two reads to be selected by my book club)
  • 18, The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway or Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas if I’m feeling in need of some more non-fiction
  • 19, Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (or alternatively the second of the two reads to be selected by my book club)
  • 20, Purge by Sofi Oksanen (bought on Kindle in 2011!)

Total: roughly 5,643 pages, which means reading 60 pages a day throughout June, July and August and posting every four days(ish), allowing for trips away. No mean feat, as the summer months are gruelling workwise. Eight books here are from the library, one on Kindle (so missing from the pic!) and the remainder are books I’ve bought or been given.

Here’s the stack of books, glowering at the end of the bed:

Book review: Pyre by Perumal Murugan (India)

Translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

First published in 2013, and published in English in 2022, Pyre was longlisted for the 2023 International Booker prize, and selected by my small book club as our most recent choice.

The book can be read as a Gothic love story or folk horror, focusing on an intense but impossible 1980s relationship between a young Indian couple, the beautiful and trusting Saroja, and the naive and utterly captivated Kumaresan. The plot is focused around the intricacies and corrupting injustices of the Indian caste system, and it unfurls with all the tension and sense of inevitability of a South Asian Wicker Man.

Saroja is a fish out of water when she arrives in her new husband’s home village. He is of a different caste, and his family, notably his dreadful, keening mother, are unwilling to accept a girl who is so different from themselves into the fold: her skin is pale, her hands look like they’ve never done a minute’s hard work, and her constitution is far from robust.

Having grown up in the familiar village, Kumaresan is certain that these people he has known all his life will accept his wife once presented with the fact of their inter-caste marriage, but he has under-estimated the resentment and prejudice of the people he thought he understood.

The prose is clean, sharp and to the point, and this is an absorbing and powerful, if bleak, short novel.

Interestingly, the author has spoken of his own experience of being ostracised after the publication of his earlier novel Madhorubhagan in 2010, which was later translated from Tamil by Penguin and published as One Part Woman.

The subject of that book is a poor, childless couple, desperate to become pregnant, and the novel references an ancient Hindu ritual which permitted (according to anecdotal oral history) women struggling to conceive to partner up with unfamiliar men on a single night.

When, following its appearance in English, the book’s content came to the attention of right-wing Hindu and caste-based groups the backlash was intense. Amid violent threats Murugan withdrew the book from sale, and announced his own ‘death’ as a writer on social media: “Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.”

At this point Pyre had already been written (the English translation followed years later). Still, despite the author’s metaphorical death more work is likely to be produced. The International Booker website notes that in 2016 a judge ruled: “Let the author be resurrected to do what he is best at. Write.” Thankfully, Murugan has apparently taken that as an instruction – ‘a command and a benediction’. 

Book review: History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir (Iceland)

Transated by Lytton Smith

This newly re-published book (February 2023) was sent to me for review by the people at Peirene. I’ve long admired the USP of Peirene, a small publisher of contemporary, high-quality European novellas in translation. Unfortunately, our house is being renovated at great length, and I lost the book in the boxes and rubble for a while, but it eventually resurfaced for a photo.

First published in Icelandic in 2016 (and in an English translation elsewhere in 2019), the story revolves around a PhD candidate researching the life and work of an obscure artist, who believes she has stumbled upon a mind-blowing revelation in the course of her historical research.

When it dawns on her, however, that in her haste to draw professionally-useful conclusions she has made a fatal error, her working premise implodes. She enters an all-consuming spiral of denial, shame and paranoia.

The book’s style is not always easy, and the translation perhaps wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, and all in all I didn’t love it until the denouement, which is absolutely brilliant and made the whole read worthwhile.

At times reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic 1892 novella The Yellow Wallpaper, this is an entertaining and thought-provoking account of academic accountability and mental distress. It provides an enjoyably chilling frisson of fiction-driven anxiety for anyone who has ever dedicated way too much of their time to researches in the vaults of a dusty library, or whose living relies on accuracy and meticulous fact-checking.

Book review: A Guide to the Serbian Mentality by Momo Kapor (Serbia)

(Multiple translators)

A slightly strange one this, which was recommended as a good read on Serbia in the Lonely Planet’s Armchair Explorer book (which I’ve currently lost amid the chaos caused by our building work, but hope eventually to unearth).

The title made me wince a bit, but this is a non-fiction book that is a mixture of national pride, self-deprecation and black humour, written and illustrated by Serbian novelist and artist Momo Kapor (1937-2010), and seemingly always intended for an English-speaking readership.

Unapologetically reinforcing as many stereotypes as it debunks, the book is interesting on food and culture, often witty, and sometimes gratingly sexist:

things have changed … especially the Belgrade girl. She is no longer a somewhat plump little woman, whose appeal was in being unprotected and helpless … Today’s Belgrade girls are marked by an often slender, tall figure… [man in late 60s then waxes lyrical about hot young girls]”

He contrasts the lifestyles of grey-suited Western Europeans, working all the time without a drop of fun, with the Serbian business person, who intersperses (he says) the work day with a substantial breakfast, beers, grape brandy, and a nap. (The workers here are naturally male.)

I suspect there is quite a lot of exaggeration here for comic effect, and that times have changed quite a lot even since 2006 when the book was first published (only a few years after the NATO bombing of Belgrade, and only a decade after the end of the huge Balkan conflict, after all). My copy is the 2010 8th edition, but it seems to be out of print now.

Given that my work means I’m up to date with Balkan politics, and less so with Balkan culture, for me this book was worth a read. I suspect it has quite niche appeal for anyone else though!

Book review: Standing Heavy by Gauz (Côte d’Ivoire)

Translated by Frank Wynne

My reviews are not coming thick and fast at the moment: we’re having major building work at home and have the contents of our kitchen in our living room, and no other useable rooms for the five of us than the three bedrooms. This is a tad disruptive to say the least, especially while trying to perform a full-time, work-from-home role.

I have, though, managed to read this short, snappy book, by Ivorian writer Gauz (the nom de plume of Patrick Armand-Gbaka Brede), which has been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. Published in English in 2022, it was first published in French in 2014 under the title Debout-Payé.

Written from the perspective of migrant workers working as security guards in Paris between the 1970s and the 2010s, large sections of the book comprise satirical vignettes focused around the customers of a swanky store, as well as observations on the status of security personnel. This one made its point with an instantly recognizable image, since I spent my student year living in France virtually subsisting on the processed French cheese spread Laughing Cow:


Needless to say, there are slightly more demanding jobs in security. The retail security guard is to the security industry what ‘The Laughing Cow’ is to cheese.

And then comes the impact of 9/11, and suddenly it becomes infinitely more difficult for economic migrants to find work in France:

“any employer will want to go through our paperwork with a fine-tooth comb before they allow us to stand in front of a fucking billboard.”

Overall, this is a quick read, and a witty but hard-hitting look at the realities of post-colonialism and capitalism in late 20th century/early 21st century Paris.

I’m not sure how much of the rest of the longlist I will get to, but I have to read Perumal Murugan’s Pyre for my book club, so that might be next.

Book review: Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (Ireland)

Fierce Appetites: Lessons from my year of untamed thinking is a collection of personal essays by Irish medieval historian Elizabeth Boyle. Sub-(sub-)titled Loving, Losing and Living to Excess in My Present and in the Writings of the Past, the book was published in 2022 by Penguin, and (appropriately enough) I’ve read it during Cathy‘s Reading Ireland month ’23

Part memoir and part deep-dive into medieval Irish poetry, it meditates on the interconnectedness of time and place, and describes a year in Boyle’s life, the pandemic year of 2020, which opens with her father’s death in January.

“My brother poured seventeen sachets of sugar into his black coffee. I muttered to him, ‘If dad dies while you’re adding all these fucking sugars I will never speak to you again.’

We walked back to the ward. Dad had died…”

There are 12 chapters, broken down by month, containing personal meditations on 12 topics, such as grief, motherhood, travel, lockdown, nature and time, and interspersed with quotes from, and analysis of medieval poetry and history. She finds connections, parallels and contrasts with the past as she passes through that weird, pre-vaccine COVID year, a year in which she turns 40. In that birthday chapter, situated in August 2020, she quotes from a female-perspective medieval poem on ageing:

Ebb-tide comes to me, as to the sea.

Old age yellows me.

Though I may grieve at that.

It approaches its food gleefully.

I am Bui, the veiled woman of Beare.

I used to wear an ever-new tunic.

Today, attenuated as I am,

I have not even a cast-off tunic.

From here, in the same chapter, she notes that an ex told her that during arguments she would always come up with some ‘bullshit narrative’ to justify herself; she quotes James Baldwin (“the only real concern of the artist … is to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art“), adding that “this includes turning emotional chaos into bullshit narrative, to justify myself to myself, if not to you.”). Next she turns to the world of academe: “Academic hands tear texts apart in a hungry search for something that might pre-date Christianity; pre-date literacy. Stripping away words after word until there is nothing left but unspoken ideology. Bullshit narratives.”

Segueing between loosely connected topics like this could go wrong in less assured hands, but I found it all fascinating. And although the subject matters sounds erudite – and it is – the writing is also no-nonsense and sometimes very funny.

Boyle can be uncomfortably open, acknowledging upfront that she is an alcoholic from a family of addicts, and questioning her motives for her leaving her six-year old daughter in England with her father to pursue her academic career many miles away in Ireland. The rare but eyebrow-lifting accounts of her sex life are such that the Daily Mail would probably wheel out terms like “shameless”. And amid the confessional writing, she is clear-eyed, incredibly clever, emotionally raw and extremely good company.

“When I was very little, no more than three or four years old, I had already moved house so often, amidst so many permutations of my shifting family unit, that I told my stepmother that I didn’t know where my home was. She told me that my home would always be wherever my teddy bear was.

Today, Poodle lives in my bedroom in Dublin. He has a hole in his arse from when one of my brothers anally raped him with a pencil. His head has been sewn back on twice, badly, and sometimes stuffing falls out of his neck. But he is home.”

Book review: The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins (Canada)

This work of non-fiction by Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins, published in 2022 by the always interesting Fitzcarraldo and sub-titled An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees, has been described as a work of “radical empathy”.

Aikins was living comfortably in Afghanistan (this was in 2016 and well before the recent Taliban takeover), when his friend and ‘fixer’/interpreter Omar decided to try to migrate to the West. Aikins, with a mixed Japanese-Canadian heritage and knowledge of Persian and Dari that meant he could ‘pass’ as a fellow Afghan refugee, decided to accompany him on the often perilous illegal migration route to Greece, crossing the Mediterranean in an inflatable dinghy.

Obviously Aikins had less to lose than his companion, who left behind his family and his girlfriend for an uncertain outcome. Although Aikins faced threats to his safety in pursuing the illicit migration route, his Canadian citizenship meant that he had the privilege of being able to call time on the endeavour if it got too much. This aspect of the experiment made me think of David Rosenhan’s 1973 study On Being Sane in Insane Places, which I read for my psychology degree: the radical act of infiltrating a place (a mental institution vs a refugee camp) and a state of existence surely only the most desperate or foolhardy would choose.

Aikins pretends to know no English, adopts the name Habib and even sends his passport to a friend. But whereas Omar is effectively imprisoned in the refugee camp on Lesbos in which the find themselves, Aikins always had the option of calling in his passport. This is an important and absolutely fascinating book, in revealing the horrors of the migrant trail, while the contrast between Aikins’ experience and Omar’s utter lack of a safety net really magnifies the vulnerabilities of desperate migrants left at the mercy of often hostile governments.

Vietnamese food at Banh Banh on Peckham Rye, London

Last week, in the same week I went to see the wonderful new British romcom Rye Lane (can it do for Peckham what Notting Hill did for … Notting Hill?), my husband and I went for cocktails at Funkidory on Peckham Rye before moving a couple of doors down to Vietnamese restaurant Banh Banh.

Banh Banh was set up by five siblings, inspired by their grandmother’s past as a chef in Saigon in the 1940s. The restaurant is pared-back and definitely not swanky, but the food is top rate and the bill very reasonable.

We had baked black sesame seed rice crackers with a sweet chilli dip, together with chargrilled aubergine with a fish sauce glaze, peanuts and coriander. We also ordered some lovely light vegetable spring rolls, and a bowl of delicious jasmine rice. My husband had the lemongrass-marinated pork skewers, grilled and served with a coriander dipping sauce, and I added the delicious chicken, sweet potato and green bean yellow-style curry with turmeric and coconut, paired with a couple of glasses of wine (me) and a local beer (him).

We went on a Tuesday, but Mondays are entirely meat-free so I may have to try that too. It’s not easy to find great Vietnamese restaurants locally, and this one is a keeper.

Book review: Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Israel)

Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Waking Lions is a 2014 novel by Israeli writer and psychologist Ayelet Guder-Goshen, which was published in English translation by Pushkin Press in 2016.

It opens with hospital doctor Eitan, a devoted husband and father of two, who has just completed a busy shift. It’s late, he’s overworked and exhausted, and he pumps up his music and puts his foot down, intending to blow away the stress as he drives his SUV through the seemingly empty Negev desert.

He was thinking that the moon was the most beautiful he had ever seen when he hit the man. For the first moment after he hit him, he was still thinking about the moon and then he suddenly stopped, like a candle that had been blown out.”

Eitan determines that man is an African immigrant, and that he has no chance of survival. In the next moments he makes a fateful decision: that nothing he does can save the dying man, but that he can save his career and save his family from the fall-out of the accident by simply leaving the scene.

All this takes place within a few pages, in the first chapter of the novel. But Eitan cannot simply put the accident behind him. He is plagued by guilt, and when the man’s widow, the beautiful Sirkit, tracks him down, she compels him to establish a sort of field hospital in the desert to treat illegal Eritrean refugees, who are unable to access medical treatment through the normal routes.

Eitan tortures himself: can he still consider himself a good man? A good husband and father? His situation is complicated too by his wife Liat’s job as a police detective, as an investigation into the hit and run is launched.

The novel is pacy, and reads like a thriller, while weighing up issues of guilt, of the meaning of privilege, of the plight of African immigrant and Bedouin communities, and of the complacent, unacknowledged racism of ‘good’ people. It is neatly plotted – perhaps too neatly plotted – but overall I found it to be a gripping and thought-provoking read.

My Top 10 Tracks from the Island of Ireland

It’s Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy. Admittedly, these aren’t books, but here is some of my favourite music from the island of Ireland.

  1. Glue by Bicep (2017): Belfast duo Bicep are dismissed by some as middle-class, middle-aged dinner party electronica, but I unapologetically love this nostalgic serotonin rush of a song.

2. Courage by Villagers (2015): Conor O’Brien channels a sort of late ’60s folk vibe, and this song is just gorgeous, as is Everything I Am Is Yours off the same album.

3. One by U2 (1991): Not a big U2 fan, but I asked for the album Achtung Baby for birthday way back in 1991 on the basis of this song. I remember being sorely disappointed with the rest of the album, with the exception of the fab The Fly (and so much tape winding and rewinding was required to find the two decent tracks!).

4. Teenage Kicks by The Undertones (1978): A Northern Irish pop/punk classic that was reputedly awarded a 28-star rating (out of 5) on its release by iconic DJ John Peel.

5. A Lady of a Certain Age by Divine Comedy (2006): I’m not usually a big fan of this Northern Irish band, led by Neil Hannon, but I do love this one.

6. I Don’t Like Mondays by Boomtown Rats (1979): A song that’s not heard often these days, it was the sixth most popular song of 1979 according to Wiki. The dark lyrics reference a school shooting in that year in the US. Here’s Bob Geldof performing the song at 1985’s Live Aid concert

7. Ramalama (Bang Bang) by Roisin Murphy (2005): energetic electronica with a banging baseline from 50% of the band Moloko (of The Time is Now fame).

8. Watermark by Enya (1988): There’s undoubtedly something deeply cheesy about Enya, but I can’t help loving this beautiful instrumental track.

9. Zombie by the Cranberries (1994): written in response to the death of two children in an IRA bombing, it’s a howl of rage and despair from Cranberries singer Denise O’Riordan who tragically died in 2018.

10. Take Me to Church by Hozier (2013): Famed for its amazing video, the song describes a gay relationship stigmatized by religious discrimination. According to Wikipedia some people unfortunately took the title literally and “were very upset” when they discovered the song was “not actually about being taken to church”.

%d bloggers like this: