It’s the sweltering season, so time to lie back with a good book (and a good air-conditioning unit)
Refreshing reads for summer 2018
What makes a good summer read? Some might say an unputdownable, poolside thriller. Others might luxuriate in a languorous literary novel that would otherwise gather dust on the bedside table. Downtime also offers a much-needed moment of pause, at which point the best and most thought-provoking non-fiction comes into its own. Whatever your preference, here are some top new reads for the season.
The President is Missing
Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Little, Brown and Knopf)
Back when Barack Obama was president of the United States, his summer reading list became something of a publishing event. Indeed, he still posts one, and we’re just a little surprised he didn’t make the debut novel by another former Democrat president, Bill Clinton, a guilty pleasure. Written with James Patterson, whose books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, The President is Missing is about a US head of state who is facing impeachment proceedings, and who also has to prevent a cyber attack that could result in violent anarchy. Not knowing who to trust, the president leaves the White House for a secret location to write slightly preachy speeches, which clearly come from the hand of Clinton. Though the plot (which with car chases and deadly assassins takes us everywhere from Germany to Saudi Arabia) is maddeningly labyrinthine, there is a presidential seal of authenticity here, too. It’s surprisingly good.
Notes on a Nervous Planet
Matt Haig (Canongate)
Clinton’s words of warning in The President is Missing – “our democracy cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, extremism, and seething resentment” – have a suitable echo in Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet. A wonderful look at “how to be happy, human and whole” in the 21st century, the answer in the short chapters that make up this lovely tome is effectively “stay off the internet” – an almost impossible state of affairs these days. But Haig understands this, and having navigated years of anxiety himself, he is a funny, wise and perceptive guide to staying sane in the digital world. If nothing else, he will encourage you to stop the nervous twitch of phone-checking, which dominates our time. And if the alternative he suggests – “look at the sky, it’s amazing. It’s always amazing” – sounds a bit hippy-dippy, Haig is somehow persuasive rather than platitudinous.
Olivia Laing (Picador)
Notes on a Nervous Planet is undeniably a book of its time, which was also Olivia Laing’s intention when she started writing Crudo in “real time” last summer in the United Kingdom. It was a summer in which she got married against a backdrop of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Brexit and Donald Trump appearing to tweet the world towards nuclear apocalypse. Laing makes sense of all these conflicting feelings in her debut novel by taking on the persona of the late artist and countercultural poet Kathy Acker – and the speed of Crudo is its great asset. With just 133 pages of feverish, hyperactively funny writing, it’s less a summer read than an experimental story about a specific summer, full of love… and selfishness. It’s demanding, but excitingly so.
Leila Aboulela (Telegram)
While we’re on the subject of brief stories, the Sudanese-Egyptian novelist Leila Aboulela published her latest collection of short stories this month. Aboulela has always been an expert chronicler of displacement and the immigrant experience – not least because her own move from Khartoum to Aberdeen in Scotland was the trigger for her to start writing. In Elsewhere, Home, she gathers together prize-winning work from across three decades to explore what home, love and faith mean when the heart feels distanced. The push and pull of Islam and secularism, the West and the Middle East are constant themes, yet Aboulela skilfully and quietly navigates these big topics through believable families and relationships rather than ostentatious polemic. The story is set in Abu Dhabi, too, and is a poignant tale of a lonely housewife fascinated with a famous writer.
Cigarette Number Seven
Donia Kamal (Hoopoe Fiction)
Staying in the Middle East, this summer’s big English translation from Arabic is Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven. First published in 2012 as a response to the momentous events of the Egyptian revolution, it has taken some time for Nariman Youssef’s translation to surface, but the wait is worth it, since it’s not often we see Tahrir Square from a female point of view. Kamal – who has a home in the UAE – intersperses the personal and political with ease, offering an intimate, everyday, and remarkably hopeful account of three decades of her protagonist Nadia’s life as she grows up in a turbulent Egypt.
David Sedaris (Little, Brown)
If you need a good laugh this summer, look no further than David Sedaris’ Calypso. This collection of essays from the bestselling American comic writer is full of his trademark wit – there’s a classic, and completely absurd, tale about his wish to have the tumour he needs removing fed to a turtle. The tumour story is something of a motif for a collection that contemplates ageing, decrepitude and death with typical brashness; he discusses his sister’s suicide (the last time he saw her was when he barred her from one of his live shows) and his alcoholic mother, who died of cancer when he was young. Which doesn’t sound like much fun – and actually Sedaris doesn’t make it overtly so. He just tells us all the stark details, lending a strange intimacy to the reading experience. And then he’s off again, marvelling at the disgusting stuff people leave in aeroplane seat pockets.
A Weekend in New York
Benjamin Markovits (Faber)
Finally, with the end of the Wimbledon tennis championships and the US Open to come, now seems like the perfect time to be served Benjamin Markovits’ new novel, A Weekend in New York. It follows Paul Essinger, a limited but willing tennis professional who enters the US Open knowing it could be his last match. What happens next is not actually a sporting story per se, but a brilliant evocation of domesticity and family relationships as the big game looms and Markovits gives each member of the expectant Essinger clan their own moment in the spotlight. There are some double faults, but overall, Markovits hits winner after winner with his eighth novel.