I began the Summer Reading Challenge in June; it ended on the last day of August. I didn’t finish reading all the books I had chosen, but the only one that remains completely untouched is Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
I’ve already blogged about some of the others that I’ve read; the ones that I haven’t mentioned yet but did finish are Earthbound by Paul Morley, Six Stories and an Essay by Andrea Levy and The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. Earthbound (Penguin 2013) is one of twelve small books Penguin brought out to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground, each one dedicated to a particular line. Paul Morley writes about the Bakerloo line, or rather, takes it as his starting point and riffs, touching on subjects from the dull colour it is lumbered with on the tube map to a (entirely plausible) claim to be the first person to listen to music on a walkman while travelling on the tube. Mostly it was about music, and has left me with an unlikely desire to listen to German Krautrock band Can. Not sure how that will go. Actually, it’s left me with a desire both to explore more unfamiliar music and to read more books about music, so Morley has definitely done something right.
Andrea Levy’s Six Stories and an Essay (Tinder Press, 2014) is just what it says on the tin, plus a bonus feature in the form of an anecdote that was originally published for a Waterstone’s miscellany. The essay at the start is a brief meditation by way of autobiography on the place — the integral place, as Levy points out — of black British history in modern Britain. The stories that follow are not exclusively about race, but the ones that stood out for me were ‘That polite way that English people have’, which is an early appearance of the character Hortense from Levy’s Small Island, and the final story, ‘Uriah’s War’, an absolutely heartbreaking story of West Indian servicemen in the Second World War.
I found Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (Portobello books, 2015) the hardest book on my list to read, although it’s hard for me to pinpoint why. It may be simply a question of mood. The novel, translated from German into English by Susan Bernofsky, takes us through the 20th Century in Austria, the Soviet Union and Germany, through the life of one woman, using a series of ‘sliding door‘ moments. It starts with the death of a baby girl and the impact on the lives of the parents and grandparents; but then what if the baby survived? And on it goes. At a later point, the baby, who has by now grown into a woman, is a writer who has come to Moscow, writing about her life — to save her life — in an application for Soviet citizenship. This section offers a sobering imagining of what it might be like to be a writer where reality is changing at every moment — friends are one day comrades, the next they are enemies and your association with them has become dangerous — and it’s grim to realise that this is still the case in some parts of the world.
Two other books on my Summer list that I’ve been reading but not yet reached the end: Popco by Scarlett Thomas and Taxidermy in Art by Jane Eastoe. The taxidermy book is unexpectedly fascinating – I’d seen it in the V&A bookshop in London, and thought ‘why not?’. The book makes its case for contemporary taxidermy as an artform, while offering a historical perspective on its development, especially as a means of scientific study in past centuries. The practice then was no doubt grim — thousands of animals were hunted and slaughtered — but is it possible for taxidermy to emerge from that shadow? Contemporary taxidermy does not involve (or at least, is not meant to involve) any cruelty to animals – they are not killed for the purpose. The book is lavishly illustrated, and the text is light but informative.
Scarlett Thomas’s Popco is my favourite book on my Summer Reading Challenge, even though I haven’t finished it yet! The protagonist Alice Butler works for a powerful, energetic toy company called PopCo, and has a gift for code-breaking. A lot of information is packed into the novel, so as well as the plot we have relevant digressions on, for example, the game ‘go’, or how companies might create idea-making environments, plus there’s been a detour into a pirate adventure. Part of the Summer Reading Challenge was that we were meant to choose three books from other people’s lists, and I’ve taken that to also mean we should recommend three from our own: I feel confident recommending PopCo, even before reaching the end, based both on what I’ve read so far, and on having read two of Thomas’s previous books, The End of Mr Y and Bright Young Things.
I didn’t finish all the books I had chosen, and so I didn’t get round to selecting titles from other people’s lists. However, one that caught my eye comes from the list compiled by Wendy Call: When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge by David Harrison. Her review on goodreads is here.