Is it just me, or does summer often feel shorter than other seasons?
Long gone are the seemingly endless summer holidays as a kid – now it just feels like a few weeks of heat, flanked by rain. Still – it’s magical to see the world bloom, foliage flushing green and lush, and the sky (usually hidden behind a veil of lumpy grey) free and clear-headed.
I’ve been writing a lot this summer – polishing some poetry, co-working on a bit to be part of a festival later this year, finishing the final draft of my first novel, reaching a milestone with my second novel, and researching for the next stage of my operatic collaboration with the Royal Northern College of Music. I’m definitely overdue an update, so I think I’ll make my next post a mega-catch-up of all things I’m working on. Subscribe if you don’t want to miss it!
But for now, I wanted to do a round-up of some world-view-changing books I’ve dipped my head into this summer. A couple are brand new releases, some are from the last couple of years, and one was released almost 100 years ago. Here goes…
Lanny by Max Porter
Since reading this, Lanny’s been shortlisted for 2019’s Man Booker Prize – and I just KNEW it would be. Having read Grief is the Thing with Feathers, I’d fallen in love with Porter’s poetic, abstract language and unusual formatting. Porter’s books don’t read like regular novels – they’re very much a play for voices, with a lot of white space and flitting between different points of view.
Lanny explores one village’s reaction to a terrible event that occurs, punctuated by the presence of this otherworldly creature, Papa Toothwort. At times, we’re treated to a page or so of broken statements as if we’re overhearing snippets of everything going on in the village at the same time. I could’ve read a whole book of these.
The Heartland, by Nathan Filer
I don’t often read non-fiction from cover to cover. If I do, it tends to be an autobiography or for research reasons. But I was gripped by The Heartland like I haven’t been in a good long while. Filer’s voice is accessible and warm – a feature missing from a lot of non-fiction. Filer is part journalist part curious human being, as he meets various storytellers whose lives have been touched by schizophrenia. But the book also invites us to look at ourselves in light of what we’re learning. At one point, he includes a neat typographical trick to prove to the sceptical mind that we – no matter how secure we feel we are – all hallucinate every single day.
We should all be interested in mental health. Even though society is far more used to undoing taboo-culture associated with certain disorders and mental health issues, we’re not quite there yet with schizophrenia. Prejudice and misunderstandings are still rife. The Heartland is written to address this stigma, and to offer a platform for hidden (or silenced) voices.
Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse
Originally published in 1922, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha has boomed in popularity again and again, not least in the 1960s, when revolution and setting out on a spiritual journey were at the forefront of many people’s minds. It’s a timeless story, quite short really, and written in clear, simple prose that could’ve easily been written this century.
Siddhartha follows the son of a Brahmin, who – despite learning insight from birth and meeting the Buddha – realises that enlightenment can’t come from following another’s doctrine. You need to find your own way, by living different lives and making mistakes along the way.
I’ve been on a bit of a Buddha-binge lately, and that’s originally why I picked this one up. But like all my favourite books, it’s a fable about finding enlightenment in a chaotic world, and being self-aware enough to embrace mistakes and start again. Here, life experience is the canvas on which you paint who you want to be.
Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso
Sabrina explores similar themes to Lanny, but this time it’s in the form of a graphic novel. In 2018, Sabrina was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I didn’t know what to expect from the minimalist artwork and vague blurb I’d ready, but – by gum – this book hit me like a fist in the gut. It seems to be a book that divides opinion, as it’s relatively slow, subtle, and oozing with dread. At times my heart was fluttering as turned the page because I didn’t know what I was going to see.
Sabrina explores the aftermath of a horrendous crime through the lives of Sabrina’s boyfriend, family, and extended network. It’s a terrifying look into how society pins blame, attributes context where it doesn’t exist, and the dark side of social media consumption. It’s claustrophobic and explores the helplessness of grief amongst sensationalist media. I’m probably majorly over-simplifying it, but I genuinely find it difficult to explain why this book disturbed me so much. I can only suggest you curl up with a copy and find out.
Fox 8, by George Saunders
Fox 8 was initially published in The Guardian, but is now available as a little hardback edition (when I saw this signed one in Waterstones I couldn’t resist). A 47 page story, Fox 8 follows a fox (number 8) as he thinks about the world at large. He’s taught himself to speak ‘Yuman’ (Human) by listening to children’s bedtime stories while hiding under a bush.
Honestly, the language is just extraordinary. It’s loose, phonetic, and so ridiculously funny. This is a fox with attitude but so much goodness and sweetness within. He’s the daydreamer of the pack, the wistful one, and you can’t help but hear him in your head as you read his thoughts. It’s a modern day fable – and while I’m sure kids would love Fox’s modernist ways, there’s a lot more going on. It’s a study of violence against nature, the destruction of the countryside, and the hidden voices being wiped out by greed.
Have any of you read any of these books? Or have there been any other books that’ve made your summer? Let me know in the comments, or show any of these talented, amazing novelists some love and pick up a copy of their books.