If you do anything this summer, try to read at least one book, whether it’s at the beach, on the bus or in bed. We’ve come up with a list of books that travel the globe, from America’s south to Afghanistan by way of Australia, New York, Iceland, and Istanbul, and covers a cross-section of genres, from literary fiction to memoir.
6 books to read at the beach this summer
American novelist Jesmyn Ward won the 2017 National Book Award for her latest novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, an unflinching examination of intergenerational disadvantage in the United States.
Jojo, 13, and his three-year-old sister Kayla live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and their mother Leonie, an often-absent drug addict, in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage in rural Mississippi. Their father, Michael, who is white, is serving three years in jail for drug offences. He is released, and Leonie decides to take her children on a road trip to fetch him and bring him home. Her friend and fellow drug abuser Misty joins them. Leonie, preoccupied with her need for drugs and the impending reunion with her husband, barely cares for her kids. Kayla is ill and Jojo is perpetually hungry; you can’t relax until they’re back with their steadfast, loving grandparents.
Race is ever-present: there’s ‘Black’ and there’s ‘White’. Misty, trying to convince Leonie to run drugs to pay for the trip, tells her friend to “take advantage.” Leonie gets stuck on the phrase:
The way she said it, take advantage, made me want to slap her. Her freckles, her thin pink lips, her blond hair, the stubborn milkiness of her skin; how easy had it been for her, her whole life, to make the world a friend for her?
The story invokes ghosts of the past as it roams through the family’s history, from the horror of mid-century lynchings to the murder of Leonie’s brother by a supposed friend. The heartbreakingly sweet bond between Jojo and Kayla gives the story warmth and hope that the younger generations can overcome the atrocities of the past.
Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of The Hate Race and short story collection Foreign Soil, had the enviable task of choosing the finest short stories among the hundreds published in Australia this year for The Best Australian Stories 2017. “These stories push and pull at our hearts,” writes Clarke in her introduction. They “sing of the country we are. Of our history, and our hopes; our battles and our dreams.”
It’s a collection that turns the spotlight back on Australian society. Signifiers of Australian life fill the pages: whipbirds, Vienettas, Possum Magic, tuckshop mums and Home and Away. But darkness permeates the pages too. Alcoholism, domestic violence and misogyny feature in Verity Borthwick’s Barren Ground, which relates a woman’s race through monsoonal floods to get her husband, bitten by a snake, to hospital. Dreamers by Melissa Lucashenko examines friendship against a backdrop of racism and our colonial past; Perry Feral by Allee Richards deals with toxic masculinity; and in Help Me Harden My Heart, by Dominic Amarena, a mother must deal with the catastrophic consequences when her son travels to Syria to become a jihadi. In The Boat, Joshua Mostafa imagines a future where survivors of a series of calamities – riots, drought, an energy crisis - must flee Australia by sea. There’s plenty to chew on over the summer as you dip in and out of this best of collection and acquaint yourself with some of Australia’s most talented writers.
Danger Music is a memoir that weaves together a series of seemingly disparate elements: mental illness and gender identity, classical music and the fortunes of Afghanistan. Emma Ayres, a classically trained musician and ABC broadcaster, was undone by depression in her forties. In her desperation, she applies for the position of cello teacher at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. “If I didn’t get the job in Kabul, I decided, I would kill myself. That was the plan,” writes Ayres in the opening chapter. Fortunately, her application was successful and in April 2015, she left Sydney to start a new life in Afghanistan.
Today Ayres is Eddie, not Emma. Danger Music is the tale of his remarkable sojourn in war torn Kabul, teaching music to orphans and street kids amid the chaos and coming to terms with his gender identity.
Home Fire opens with an interrogation. Isma is on her way from London to Amherst, Massachusetts to study a PhD in sociology. “She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions – no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her areas of academic interest,” but still she is pulled aside and forced to endure the humiliation of having her luggage scrutinised. A two-hour interview ensues as an officer questions her about “Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating website.” Finally, she is allowed through immigration, her flight long since departed.
Kamila Shamsie’s seventh book is inspired by Sophocles’ play Antigone and was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. It’s the story of three siblings: Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Isma has cared for the twins since their mother and grandmother died when they were 12. Her move to Amherst is the first opportunity she has had to pursue her own dreams, and yet she worries about Aneeka, living alone in London. She is estranged from Parvaiz, who we learn has left London to work for Isis. Shamsie, who was born in Karachi and now lives in London, shows how fracturing global politics can wreak havoc in personal relationships.
In Saga Land, Richard Fidler, host of the popular Conversations program on ABC, and his friend Kári Gíslason, a six foot four half-Icelandic “Viking”, travel to Iceland, a far flung and frozen isle found in the one of the world’s northernmost locations. The pair met on Fidler’s radio show and struck up an immediate friendship. They soon made plans to travel to Iceland to immerse themselves in the Icelandic sagas, famous stories of the Viking families that settled the island 1000 years ago. “They’re the greatest stories ever written,” says Gíslason.
Saga Land celebrates the storytelling tradition that is central to Icelandic culture. Gíslason’s own family history appears in the book alongside traditional saga stories. Part travelogue, part history, part memoir, it will put Iceland on the top of your 2018 travel list.
Born in Shanghai in 1983, Jenny Zhang moved to New York City as a five-year-old. After graduating from Stanford University and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she made her name writing for Rookie, the magazine for teen girls wunderkind Tavi Gevinson founded in 2011. Among her high-profile pals is Lena Dunham, who published Sour Heart through her Lenny Books imprint on Random House.
The seven stories that make up Sour Heart centre on the Chinese American community living in New York in the 1990s. “Everyone said it was normal to go through hell your first year in America, but no one prepped us for our second,” notes Christina, the protagonist of the opening story, We Love You Chrispina. Christina and her parents live in today’s hipster suburbs: Bushwick, Williamsburg, East Flatbush. But they live in overcrowded fleapits; at one stage, they share a room with four other families. They eat out of dumpsters and flick dead cockroaches off their legs in the morning when they wake. Crass and caustic, Zhang manages to be gritty and lyrical at the same time. The family calls their East Flatbush abode “E Flat because we loved the sound of E Flat on the piano and we liked recasting our world in a more beautiful, melodious light.” The grinding poverty contrasts with the strong bonds that keep the family afloat. “I was supposed to want to paint my nails and play tag and jump rope,” she writes, “but the truth was I only ever wanted to be sandwiched between my parents.”
The strength of this collection shows that Zhang’s talent lives up to the hype.