Summer 2023 Fun Reads

by Maria on August 31, 2023

Quick round-up of books I read for fun over the summer. I’m mostly reading books about ecology and network design for other things, so perhaps my fiction brain isn’t quite optimised for full immersion at the moment, but I’ve not really sunk deep into anything I’ve read for some time.

‘You made a fool of death with your beauty’ is a novel by Nigerian writer Akwaeki Emezi about a bereaved young American artist who’s just started dating again. A lot of it happens in an unnamed Caribbean island where there’s a love triangle, an engaging and convincing art project and a captivating older man at the height of his creative and personal game. I really enjoyed how it concerns Black people and Blackness, centred on love in unexpected places and also the chemistry of two artists in different fields and different generations, how each opens up a world to the other. Plot-wise, it’s mostly about how two people figure out the emotional and familial constellations required for them to be together, so that felt slightly anticlimactic towards the finish. But I don’t often read romance, and, well, it is bound to be about whether the protagonist’s couple makes it. And it was good to read about Black joy and queer friendships and love without the gathering dread of older narratives where someone must be about to take a massive fall. The only slightly off-putting thing – and perhaps this is generational – is the rather YA-ish first person, repetitive self-doubting. That’s a quibble. The language, the setting, clothes, celebrations and dialogue are all wonderful. Solid recommend.

‘The Female Persuasion’ by American novelist Meg Wolitzer was a 2018 #MeToo, Trump-appalled tale of a very nothing-y young woman who’s assaulted at a college party and goes on to become the protégé of a Second Wave feminist. It was just so unbelievably long. I think there’s a certain kind of American writing that assumes we (for whoever the ‘we’ is, presumably only other Americans?) care about how the Twinkies tasted in 1980-whatever and how the TV schedule was and the endless supposedly sociological minutiae of white middle class suburban life – though I’m also reminded of the truly unreadable 2017 novel by Paul Auster that just went on and on and ON about baseball, a dull game at the best of times and, well, Auster is no Don DeLillo, put it that way, and 4321 is no Underworld – and that these trowelled on novelist’s wodges of starchy consumerist specificity convey something vitally important about the characters and their social milieu that we couldn’t learn from, I don’t know, call me Alice Munroe, a gesture? One single truncated thought? Wolitzer’s more-is-more pads the thing out by about 20% and is such an aggressive and unjustified claim on the reader’s attention, and to such low returns. If you already know what a Twinkie is, you know. And if you don’t, you don’t fucking care. Not for a page at a time, anyway. Otherwise, this novel concerned a plain Jane kind of protagonist who’s good at falling on her feet, never being the first to see or do something but often being the canniest and best-paid. A betrayer of friends, a writer of whatever the millennial version of Second Wave feminism is – some combination of leaning into your joy or forgiving yourself or some such – I had no fucks to give at 400 pages in and, frankly, had began to doubt the whole twentieth century novelistic enterprise. So often novels use the quiet, judge-y, hovering protagonist as a bird’s eye on the scene it aims to survey. (I knew Nick Carraway. Nick Carraway was a friend of mine. Novelist, you’re no Nick Carraway.) So often, this character’s final vindication is that they Write a Book. Honestly this whole move seems like self-justification on the part of writers who store shit up to write about instead of actually doing or saying things when they count. Or as soon as possible after – we’re only human. But perhaps I’m just being spiteful. Anyway, not Wolitzer’s best, and I’d like her stuff much more if there were fewer DETAILS. But … there is one truly shocking, heart-rending and utterly true moment in this book, and how people spin off from that and the shapes lives take in response to it feels accurate, earned and right. When she’s good she really is good. Emotional verisimilitude yes. Shopping lists and TV summaries, no.

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfield. So I should say I was reading all these while jetlagged or travelling to and from Australia, if that’s not already obvious. In fact, I think I bought all three in the airport, or certainly with a view to reading in a traveller’s diminished condition. I read Romantic Comedy on the plane back and it was perfect. It takes the sexist conceit that on the US comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live, gorgeous female celebrities sometimes marry the IRL schlubby male comedians, but never when the gender roles are reversed. So it’s about a bruising encounter and later a lockdown epistolary romance between a gorgeous male popstar and a perfectly average in all respects woman comedian. I LOVED this book. It has all the beats you’d expect, and all the traditional warts-and-all and self-loathing of the female protagonist, but it digs a little deeper into the why of the relationship. And the guy in it is just very decent. He’s had therapy and uses it every day. I know of no greater aphrodisiac. He knows his limits and how he needs to live, and makes himself open and vulnerable to a potential partner who has wisecracked or flat out lied her way out of every meaningful encounter in her romantic life. I just really, really enjoyed reading about these two frail and broken – and funny and clever – humans figuring out a way to be together. Again, as per Emezi’s gorgeous novel, I suppose that is just one of the fundamental human stories. And both novels play it out with a frankness about politics and sexuality that is utterly refreshing and disarming. It also helps that every single character in each of them has PLENTY of money to enjoy. So the tourism was fun, too.

Well, I thought I’d do all the summer’s books, but that was just a couple of weeks in July, and here we are at 1000 words. The only other I’ll recommend is a nonfiction, Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau, about an idea in 1960s UK to collect people’s premonitions of disasters to see if they were accurate and could predict future ones. It’s a short, surprising, challenging (of ideas) and quietly heartfelt book. It’s got some strange ideas – he seems to think Freud’s notion of emotional transference worked as a literal psychic power, beaming information from one person’s head to another – but how the book works centrifugally around the Aberfan disaster and the ultimate professional failure of a non-conforming psychiatrist give it freight and depth. A lesser writer may have mocked people’s openness to the uncanny and their hope and grief-motivated beliefs, but Knight quietly nudges forward amidst mid-century disasters the failure and pathos of one man’s life. Very strong recommend.
What were your summer reads?



Chris Bertram 08.31.23 at 3:21 pm

Is summer over? I’m currently reading George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo concurrently with James McPherson’s history of the American Civil War: Battle Cry of Freedom, which is quite a thing to be reading at the same time as following war reports from Ukraine. Both are, in a way, follow-ons from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which achieves the feat of exposing the workings of a corrupt racist society whilst being stunningly and offensively racist itself. It is quite the thing, though, with layer after layer of unreliable second-hand testimony making it hard or impossible to work out what actually went down. There were also, to my suprise, little bits of Rousseau’s Second Discourse sprinkled into the account of Sutpen’s Appalachian upbringing.

Before that I read, among other things Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos, which I enjoyed for its sympathetic reconstruction of East German society while being revolted at the horrible male protagonist (the much older, controlling, vampirish lover of a young woman). I also very much enjoyed (and have mentioned before on CT, Gospodinov’s time-shelter, which poses all kind of interesting questions about national identity and the past, and exactly when was the dreamtime of particular nations). In non-fiction, I loved Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires, about one woman’s making of the same-ish tomato sauce a thousand times, complete with some really interesting reflections on creativity and recipes and what recipes are via a confrontation between Mrs Beeton and DW Winnicot (spoiler, Mrs Beeton comes out on top).


LFC 08.31.23 at 5:49 pm

One thing I read this summer was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015). Will be posting a short review on my blog tomorrow.

McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, mentioned by Chris above, is very good (I’ve read large parts, not cover to cover). A model of narrative/analytical history and probably unsurpassed for a one-volume history of the Civil War.


Lynne 08.31.23 at 6:19 pm

Maria, I reread (actually, this time I listened to) The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Can’t recommend highly enough! But that said, when I’ve recommended them there’s been about a 50/50 uptake. People love them or have trouble getting into them and just stop. There are six books, beginning with The Game of Kings, which are set in the mid-1500s and follow a Scottish hero for ten years through the critical history of his time. There’s adventure, lots of history, romance. Everything, really. She was friends with Ian Fleming and inspired by his project of creating the ultimate spy, decided to create the ultimate hero.


Doug 08.31.23 at 6:21 pm

I read the second half of The Magic Mountain a mere 30 years after reading the first half. It’s a monument, but I’m not really sure I would recommend it. The Tsar’s Madman by Jaan Kross is such a good examination of authoritarian absurdity and tragedy that I’m surprised it could be published in the Soviet Union, even in the Brezhnev era. Maybe they figured nobody reads Estonian, maybe the censor agreed with the critique. I read Emily Tesh’s Drowned Country in summer, but I much preferred her Silver in the Wood, which I read in April.


John Q 08.31.23 at 8:07 pm

I’ve started on academic novels, following this post from Chris A

Really enjoyed Dear Committee Members. Molly of the Mall was a fun light read.

I’m now reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. My wife picked this up from a local “little library” and I had ignored it on the assumption that “plot” meant “conspiracy”. But it turns out to refer to marriage as the central plot element of C19 novels. And it turns out that “intrigue” has the same double meaning in French.

Also struck by the fact that the protagonist is v similar to Molly of the Mall. Female English undergrad in the 1990s, loves C19 literature, but has to deal with Theory (semiotics etc).


Maria 09.01.23 at 10:29 am

oh, some great books here! Lynne, I do wonder if a series is what I need for my current reading rut – the right amount of familiarity and novelty.

Chris – I think we in the UK will get some sunny weather next week, so it’s not all over yet. But I am currently in boots and jeans and a raincoat, so … That Saunders combo sounds terrific. I remember feeling Lincoln in the Bardo was very good. Not novel-shaped, but I enjoyed it a lot. Worth another look.

John, yes, the marriage plot is a staple, and the only violence/skullduggery involved is emotional (and financial). Those campus novels sound fun.

LFC do please post a link to yours on The Sympathiser.

Doug – I sometimes think about attempting to summit the Magic Mountain but have to admit it sounds a tough read..?

I’m away for a couple of days. And I’m bringing my ultimate brain-jagged comfort read, Little, Big with me.



Matt 09.01.23 at 12:13 pm

It’s not summer here (though it always feels a bit like summer to me in Queensland…) but I’ve just finished reading Anthony Everitt’s biography of Cicero. It was fairly fun, but I’ll admit that it left me less sympathetic to Cicero, and more sympathetic to Ceaser, than I’d been before reading it. (I am nearly certain that wasn’t the intention of the book.) Cicero comes across as vain, and as desperate to suck up to the “old families” of Rome. Everitt explains why this made sense, even beyond his conservativism, but it’s still unseamly, to my eye. And, whatever his obvious vices, Ceaser (unlike Cicero) comes across as seeing that the republic, as it was, was no longer capeable of governing, and needed radical structural change, and not just better people, even if they could be found.

I’d note that it’s not a “philosophical” biography, nor something that is very likely to help people understand Greek or Roman philosophy better, and it also doesn’t do a great job of making clear of exactly why Cicero was as influential as he was, and why his support was sought by as many people as it was. That he was a great orator is repeatedly noted, but there’s not much explanation as to why this was as important as it was. Still, it’s a reasonably good read if you’re interested in such things.

A bit earlier I read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. I’d watched, and enjoyed, the movie with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton jr. several years ago, but hadn’t read the book until now. If you like Maugham you’d probably like this. It was interesting to me to see how the characters were different in the book than in the movie, and how there was not the same sort of reconciliation in the book as in the movie. In some ways that contrast was as interesting as anything else. But also, the main character (more so in the book than the movie), Kitty Fane, was interesting to me as a woman who didn’t seem like a stereotype of a woman of the time (1920s) but who still isn’t presented as a heroine. In any case, both the book and the movie are good, I think.


J, not that one 09.01.23 at 2:03 pm

I read The Magic Kingdom after avoiding Russell Banks for a long time, and now I wonder why I did. (Actually I know why I did, because he gave a really annoying interview after the film of The Sweet Hereafter came out, and that book didn’t promise anything cheery at all. But it was a mistake.)

I’m only now noticing the resemblance to “The Magic Mountain,” which I started during the pandemic and picked up again for a bit over the summer. You could maybe say Banks’s plot is a very attenuated version of one part of Mann’s, I guess.

Also read “The Hours,” which was very very good and very much of its era. Can definitely recommend “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” as well.


J 09.01.23 at 3:44 pm

The three that stand out to me in my summer reads are:
Imagining the Heartland: White Supremacy and the American Midwest
by Britt E. Halvorson and Joshua O. Reno
WE DON’T KNOW OURSELVES A Personal History of Modern Ireland By Fintan O’Toole
The City & the City, a surreal crime fiction novel by China Mieville


LFC 09.01.23 at 3:51 pm


DAT 09.02.23 at 2:03 pm

On books I find myself regularly recommending, near the top is “Tristram Shandy”. My late wife and I disagreed on it. “Nothing every happens!” She complained. She was, of course, right. I simply felt “I am in the hands of a master,” and laid back and enjoyed it. (I wonder if I would have been unable to enjoy it if my first exposure to it had been at age 18 instead of age 50.)

On romances, I think it’s hard to beat the Aubrey Maturin series. One is a Tory sea Capitan, the other an Irish/Catalonian doctor, naturalist, melancholiac, spy and opioid addict. The books are are strong both individually and as a unit. I read all 20 of them about 20 years ago, and foolishly gave them away. I’ve just this year reacquired a random six. they stand up remarkably well to rereading. Twenty yeas ago I was told that the series was assigned in school in Ireland to teach literature.

“The City and the City”, by China Mieville, (I’m sure it and he have been discussed on CT.) Is a good read. It’s a murder mystery, set in two completely separate cities which share the same physical space, and the “police” who must patrol their borders, making sure they stay inviolably separate.


Doug 09.04.23 at 11:59 am

Seconding Lynne’s recommendation of Lymond! As NPR says, all the writers you love probably love Dorothy Dunnett.

As for Magic Mountain, I dunno. Do you like portraits of interwar upper-ish society? It’s mostly divorced from any particular outside events, which is part of Mann’s point of showing a sealed world. Sentence by sentence, it wasn’t difficult, but there is the whole thousand-page thing to consider. I’d be curious to know whether translators break up Mann’s sentences, which in German only really get going at about the 100-word mark, and sometimes spin onward for considerably more.

Here’s what I wrote at Frumious:

I think if I try anything very long in German soon, it’s more likely to be Buddenbrooks (not least because a story of a real Hansa family might spur the alt-Hansa I’ve been noodling with for a while) or Erfolg by Lion Feuchtwanger, which is about how Nazism came to Munich. Or vice versa.

Should I buy a copy of the 25th (but actually 40th) anniversary edition of Little, Big?


hix 09.05.23 at 6:04 pm

“I think if I try anything very long in German soon, it’s more likely to be Buddenbrooks ”
Cannot remember any other book i stoped reading after i was 70% through and realiced, there really is no twist to the famous story anymore that might make it interesting or remotly believable.

I very much did pick up on the ocd and depression of the major incompetent businessmen which shall never be named as such alongside social pressure to keep up a facade that does involve expensive status consumption. Mann himself probably had no very good concept of what he was describing. Musil was already better in that regard. I can even relate a lot more than i´d like. Still, or maybe for that reason no believable explanation for the economic missfortune for me. I fear many readers liked the book not because they because they can live with the unrealism, but rather because they think the story is a lot more realistic than it is.

Guess i should also complain about the Bavarian stereotype. No not really. The Bavarian alcoholic does get a rather nice stereotypical threatment.


PeteW 09.06.23 at 11:01 am

I’m reading an Immense World by Ed Yong, about how animals most likely sense and perceive the world around them, and it is a real, well, eye-opener.
He also has a very engaging writing style. A good summer read.
BTW does anyone else read Krishnamurti? I have just picked up a copy of one of his biographies, Star In The East.


Andrew Brown 09.07.23 at 8:31 am

Anatol Lieven, Climate Change and the Nation State: lucid and extremely depressing. tl;dr The Right denies the problem and the Left denies the solutions.
Claire Gilbert, Miles to go Before I Sleep; memoir of an exceptionally nasty cancer treatment by a vivid writer and highly intelligent Christian. Nothing to compare with it since Margaret Spufford’s Celebration, though the two books are not otherwise alike. Smoke Trails in the Sky (!) a memoir of life as a hard-drinking fighter pilot which I would not have read had the author not been my uncle Tony but I’m glad I did. A completely lost world.
Peter Turchin, Ultrasociety: not entirely convincing but the link between inner coherence and outside threat seems undeniable (see Lieven above)
Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: (essays from the Thirties) God, the optimism of that low dishonest decade! He proposed eg capping income inequality at 30 times lowest to highest. The question “You and whose army?” never occurred to a member of the pre-war British ruling class. Their army, of course.


Jack 09.10.23 at 2:01 pm

Over the summer I read ‘The Sea, The Sea’ by Iris Murdoch and was utterly absorbed. Tricky to describe yet both hilarious and thought provoking; I don’t know how I missed it. Will certainly give ‘The Lymond Chronicles’ a try and ‘The City and the City’ sounds like one for the Christmas list.

Like John Q, I also really enjoyed the recent thread on campus novels and have my own connection with the genre. During my doctoral studies I grew depressed at how few of my friends and family would ever read my thesis, so started writing a novel to spread my ideas on the justification for the state in a more entertaining way…

Not much of my thesis made the edit, but last year my novel ‘Pond Life’ was published. It tells the story of a doctoral student whose life is turned upside down when he is revealed as the unwitting recipient of a controversial grant. I once outlined the plot to a nice chap I met at a conference who went white and said he didn’t know anything about his scholarship’s benefactor.

In a rather fitting development, the publishing house went bankrupt shortly before publication, but it is still available to order through most outlets. If anyone fancies giving it a read, I’d love to hear any feedback.


Barnes and Noble:



Doug 09.12.23 at 8:18 am

Thanks, hix! (If somewhat belatedly.) I looked through my shelves again and realized that a bunch of the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s two series of 50 great novels of the 20th century are short enough for me to read without considering them major undertakings, so that will probably be my German reading for a while. Kurt Tucholsky just now. Not sure what qualifies this one as great, but (1) I’m only about a fifth of the way in; (2) it’s at least aiming to be funny, and there’s always a shortage of humor in such sets; and (3) the SZ made no claims about greatest, and that’s a good thing

Jack, congratulations! But argh about bankrupt publishers.

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