It’s time to pack sun cream and shorts for another summer holiday. But what to read as the sun beats down and you forget about life?
The emergence of Kindle has opened out a world of possibility for holidaymakers. It’s not just that you can choose your reading as you go along, it’s the freedom to read the most egregious literature and no-one else is the wiser. Sailing long distance by ferry last year, I was struck by how many people were discretely reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ digitally, when, for all the world knew, they were reading Thomas Hardy or Amos Oz (you only have to hover over their shoulder for a second to determine they aren’t, of course).
So if, by some chance, you are reading this post on holiday, with a Kindle in hand, what to download (aside from E.L. James)?
Modern British authors are often criticised for a failure to address the big questions of our time. I suspect this is unfair; there is certainly a burgeoning market in State of the Nation novels, which are well worth a summer read. In addition to Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December, can be added Capital by John Lanchester. His account of the households of one affluent London street is replete with caricatures (silver-spoon banker; African football prodigy; Islamic radical) yet it still somehow works with style. Pre-eminently, Justin Cartwright’s novel, Other People’s Money charts with languid power the fall from grace of an traditional, old London bank with the use of impossibly obscure financial instruments; I loved it.
On the whole I have avoided Second World War literature out of choice, but HHhH by Laurent Binet is an exception. The story of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and lead architect of the Holocaust, may not work for some, with the author’s typically post-modern personal interjections into the historical account, but you are left with a sense of awe at the shocking courage of his young would-be assassins, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, who undertook a mission they surely knew they could not survive.
Sometimes real life thrillers are more terrifying than the imagination of an author. Dark Market by Misha Glenny exposes the world of hackers and cyber crime. While most attention is focussed on the growth in cyber warfare, led by the Chinese, Glenny shows the scale of criminal activity online and the way private details are so easily stolen from our routine use of the internet. David Hoffman’s The Dead Hand is a gripping and disturbing account of arms control in the final years of the Cold War, made more sobering by the realisation that so many components of weapons of mass destruction, including germs and chemicals, remain unaccounted for after the end of the Soviet Union. The era of mutually assured destruction may be over, but the spying game is still thriving. Edward Lucas’ Deception shows the extent of Russian penetration of western sources. This has been glamorised by the uncovering of Anna Chapman as a sleeper spy and through the TV drama, The Americans. The truth is less sexy, but more troubling for western nations, not least because Putin has surrounded himself with so many ex-KGB whose instincts and training remain finely honed.
If your aim is, perversely, to impress other people with your intellectual prowess amid the sandcastles and swimsuits, Amin Maalouf’s Disordered World is a beautiful account by a leading Arab thinker of the fracture lines and healing points of the post 9/11 world (his novels are utterly spell-binding too). Meanwhile, Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership has been described by Andrew Marr as ‘the most persuasive argument for religious belief I have ever read’. His effortlessly easy prose aids this reasoned and gracious polemic against those who ignorantly pit science against religion and reminds us how privileged we were in Britain to have him as Chief Rabbi for so long.
Finally, a couple of crude gender distinctions. For now I’m the only man I know who has read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, but there must be others. I am quite sure no man would ever have got away with the depiction of a lead female character like Amy Dunne without being called a deluded misogynist. It is, nevertheless, a chilling read that you will be pleading with friends to share, so you can dissect its themes together. If you are a forty-plus sports fan, it should be mandatory to read Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV by Martin Kelner. For those of us whose cruelly limited exposure to sport in the 1970s revolved round ham wrestling and Evel Knievel’s pointless motorbike stunts on ITV’s World of Sport, this may be the book that starts your slide into ageing nostalgia. The programme’s signature tune alone still produces Pavlovian responses. I stuck with Grandstand, in truth, but if I only knew then what I know now about World of Sport’s insouciant, tongue in cheek agenda, I might have spent more time in slick Dickie Davies’ company. He didn’t even like wrestling, for goodness’ sake.
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