I don’t think I have ever spend more time and energy (and indeed money) on choosing my beach reads as I have this summer. Having come to the end of a PhD in the closing days of 2017 with a “flop and drop” holiday to Thailand planned for over the new year I read blog posts, newspaper articles and trawled all the 6 month old “summer reads” articles in the British and American newspapers and magazines in order to choose a handful of books to take with my on holiday.
Beach reads are quite particular. I don’t enjoy the more commercial books in this category and indeed have to been known to throw a book across a room for being too ‘dumb’ but I didn’t want to crack open Proust or Joyce by the pool either. In the end I selected a small shortlist of books to buys, finalized my choices in the bookstore and then selected which of my purchases to actually take with me and downloaded a couple of extras to my ereader in case I ran out or felt more like those. In the end I took the following books with me: The Answers, Catherine Lacy; Americanah, Chimaanda Ngozi Adichie, Beautiful Animals, Lawrence Osbourne; Bel Canto, Ann Patchett and Swing Time, Zadie Smith. I got through (most of) the first three on my six-day holiday, including the flights. Here are my thoughts on them in the order in which I read them:
The single-girl-in-the-city book: “The Answers”, Catherine Lacy
My least favourite of the three books was an impulse deviation from my list made on a whim in the bookshop. While I had planned to buy either “Conversations with Friends” (Sally Rooney) or “The Idiot” (Elif Batuman) at the last minute I swung to “The Answers” on remembering having read a glowing review of it and intrigued by it’s concept of a fragmentation of girlfriend roles over a number of paid women each tasked with separate girlfriend roles – sex, mothering, emotional support, intellectual sparring, downtime, anger and so on. While initially engaging, for me this book didn’t quite deliver. Though it is faithful to its premise I found the book highly expositional in a way that I found grating and the protagonist had a certain blankness that in the end I felt weakened the narrative. Later, on revisiting the review, I saw that the writer had compared “The Answers” favorably to Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man” which I also read on a beach and did not enjoy. It’s a pity I had not remembered this detail while bookshop browsing because it would have almost certainly dissuaded me from picking up this book. All this said, I think this is precisely the type of book that tends to be taken more seriously when written by a man and while I think “The Answers” is flawed it does tackle some interesting questions about modern relationships in an innovative way.
The literary thriller: “Beautiful Animals”, Lawrence Osbourne
This book was the one certainty I had when entering the book shop for my post-PhD submission beach-read-binge. I had read a number of reviews and knew I wanted this in my suitcase. And indeed it is a rather delicious mixture of young, ultra-rich, beautiful women swanning around a Greek Island and a thriller involving a refugee which I found both intriguing and highly relevant. One pure pleasure of the book was that even when the book transported me, as books are apt to do, I still found myself either lolling on a Greek beach wondering what was for lunch or road tripping through Italy in a fancy car. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read on a number of levels – with a strong plot and plenty of stuff happening, a delicious summer setting and not so lightweight that I can’t remember anything about it ten days later. That said I found the last quarter somewhat less successful than the preceding sections, but would still recommend it as a great smart beach read.
Cross-cultural literary fiction: “Americanah”, Chimaanda Ngozi Adichie
This was a recommendation from my favourite bookseller and was perhaps my favourite of the three books, with a great protagonist and an apparent project of showing America from a Nigerian’s perspective as well as Nigeria from an American’s. It’s a smart and very timely reflection on race relations especially as they pertain to America but much of it is relevant for Australia too. If I had any quibbles with it I found the late-middle section dragged just a touch and Ngozi Adichie has chosen to make her narrator a less talented writer than herself resulting in the insertion of blog posts on race that, while relevant and smart, are less well written than the rest of the book and lacking its subtlety.
Reading on the plane
I can recommend choosing a book on an e-reader for on the plane; I found the patch of light cast by the overhead reading light fell such that it was uncomfortable to hold my paper book at an angle in which it could comfortably be read. It was also a compact way of having many books in a format convenient enough to store under the seat in front of me (Mr K is very tall so I always end up in the middle seat when we travel together so he can have a window seat which he finds gives him more options of how to sit and sleep).
Overall it was a very good week of reading. If you arrived at this post looking for a beach read specifically you might consider “Beautiful Animals”. For the best of the three overall I think “Americanah” is a timely, challenging and elegant novel well worth your time and which I will be recommending to friends.
And in good news – I still have the rest of my stash to read now I’m back home.