Summer Books: What We’re Reading On Vacation, From Juicy Autobiographies To Witty Fiction

By Julia Gessler
Consider these recommendations for your summer reading list. Photo / Babiche Martens

Finding good books for long summer days can be daunting. Let us help.

If there is one thing I know about being a professional writer and a non-professional reader, it’s just how impossible it is to get through all the books you want to. I read to stay connected

If this all sounds suspiciously like homework, it is. I make a point of reading writers who make it painful to be one because of how ludicrously, unreasonably good they are. Zadie Smith is an example (has anyone ever written so brilliantly about classism, authorship and truth by way of a 19th-century criminal trial about a baronetcy and a scamster?) George Saunders is another. They are books that are clever. They are books that are tidal in their ebb and flow between sentences to tear through and those that make you slow down, pause. They are, in most cases, desperately recommendable.

Some of my favourites this year have included Heartburn by Nora Ephron, a devastatingly funny rumination on love and loss that felt like a resource I needed to store away like a winter provision, and Leslie Jamison’s profound essay collection The Empathy Exams. This summer, my palate skews English major: Mansfield Park (Jane Austen), The White Album (Joan Didion). It’s also a little zeitgeisty: The Bee Sting (Paul Murray), Raising Hell, Living Well (Jessica Elefante).

What else do writers read on vacation? I surveyed the Viva and Herald lifestyle team, a group of equally active bibliophiles, on how they plan on divvying their precious summer — at least literarily. Stephanie Holmes said it was hard to pick up another book after dining on Demon Copperhead earlier this year. “I was so captivated by Barbara Kingsolver’s latest epic and can’t stop thinking about it — it’s difficult to let another story into my head just yet.” She’ll dip first into Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton — that propulsive guerilla-gardening drama — despite not making it through The Luminaries, and maybe look at Open by Andre Agassi. For Greg Bruce, it seems like an opportunity to start Marcel Proust’s 1.35 million-word masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Johanna Thornton

Rewi by Jeremy Hansen and Jade Kake (Massey University Press, $75)

I can’t wait to dive into Rewi by Jeremy Hansen and Jade Kake, which looks at the work of the late architect Rewi Thompson (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Raukawa) through the lens of friends, collaborators and students, and presents a range of his projects from homes to public buildings, speculative works to home alterations and nationally important structures like Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s City to Sea Bridge. There are archival photos, magazine spreads, sketches and plans to pore through, accompanied by thoughtful text from the book’s authors. “His designs are not feel-good narratives,” writes Jeremy in the introduction, “but rather deeply personal buildings that make us contemplate the complex nature of living here. Their bravery and their imperfections — the way they thumb their nose at the commonly held architectural goal of resolving every aspect of a building so it leaves no questions open for debate — embrace of the inherent messiness of the act of becoming.”

Kim Knight

Flora: Celebrating Our Botanical World, edited by Carlos Lehnebach, Claire Regnault, Rebecca Rice, Isaac Te Awa and Rachel Yates (Te Papa Press, $80)

I’m going to sit garden-adjacent and read about gardens. Flora: Celebrating Our Botanical World is a behemoth from Te Papa Press that considers our connections to nature. Twelve essays and beautiful imagery for those days when all I want to do is look at the pictures.

The Last Days of Joy by Anne Tiernan (Hachette, $37) and Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $50)

I have had an Aotearoa-flavoured reading year. Beach-and-bach appropriate favourites included Pet (Catherine Chidgey) and One of Those Mothers (Megan Nicol Reed), but my immediate requirement is something for a long-haul flight. My plan is to finish Anne Tiernan’s The Last Days of Joy and (yes, I am the last person in the world to do this) finally start Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood.

The Fraud by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $37)

I’m a huge Zadie Smith fan but confess I didn’t love her last novel, Swing Time. According to reviews, The Fraud is almost flawless — I know nothing about the historic Tichborne Trial the new book is based on, but look forward to contemplating questions of fact, fiction and authenticity under a pōhutukawa tree sometime soon!

Ashleigh Cometti

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano (Viking, $37)

I joined a book club earlier this year (aptly named Books & Booze), but due to the busyness of life/work/raising two small people fell very behind with my monthly reads! This summer, I’ll be finishing Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. Hello Beautiful explores the life and relationships of the four Padavano sisters Julia, Sylvie, Cecilia and Emeline. A modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the plot closely follows the love story of Julia and William Waters, a troubled soul with a tragedy-riddled past who finds his happiness in basketball and Julia until he doesn’t.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn (HarperCollins, $25)

I’ll also be starting The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn. In The Diamond Eye, Mila Pavlichenko is thrust into the frontline during World War II, and quickly transforms from a bookish student to a deadly sniper. The book is based on a true story, and follows Mila’s journey from the eastern front to Washington DC after being declared a national heroine for her contribution to the war effort.

Dan Ahwa

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead (Little Brown, $38)

Delving into a good read is something I am going to enjoy this summer, and one that I have been saving is Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s eleventh book is a sequel to his 2021 release Harlem Shuffle and is set in a time and place I would love to go back to out of sheer curiosity New York City in the 1970s. The premise focuses on the saga of furniture store owner and former hustler Ray Carney who finds himself in a predicament trying to source Jackson five tickets for his daughter. The innocent challenge pulls Carney back into a life of crime when he reconnects with his old contact Munson, a crook cop who promises top concert tickets in exchange for helping him shift some stolen jewels. What ensues is a darkly comical dilemma set against the backdrop of one of the most volatile moments in New York’s history, where crime is at an all-time high and tensions are rife between the police and militant groups like the Black Liberation Army.

Potiki by Patricia Grace (Penguin, $16)

This is an essential read for any New Zealander. Patricia Grace’s tale of a small coastal community being threatened by developers was released in 1986, and subsequently won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction the following year.

Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World by Malcolm Harris (Quercus, $40)

I’ve long had a fascination with the West Coast of the US, its sunny disposition, its counter-culture history, its food and impact on language, its tech and wellness culture. This non-fiction book has some weight to it, but for those looking to escape into a non-fiction cultural read, this could be a good place to start. Malcolm Harris dives deep into the origins of Silicon Valley, the ideologies of Northern California, and how a small American suburb became the engine room for so much more.

Madeleine Crutchley

Audition by Pip Adam (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $38)

I’m a big fan of science fiction, my bookshelves lined with novels set in otherworldly locations; think alternative, disaster-stricken versions of Earth, artificially intelligent spaceships and the famous island where dinosaurs roam. However, I haven’t ventured into much sci-fi written by New Zealand authors. This work by Pip Adam, which sees three giants squished into a spaceship hurtling through space, looks to be a weird and wonderful starting point. Critics have highlighted its slick and prudent social commentary — I’m hoping it makes for an immersive and hypnotising holiday read.

Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press, $50)

Albert Park played host to many a lunchtime during my recent stint at university, providing both sun and solitude between classes. I had a vague understanding of some of its history, as I strolled past Speaker’s Corner most days, but Nick Bollinger’s recount promises to divulge a little more detail. The title refers to regular gatherings at the central city park in the 60s and 70s, where formative moments in counterculture activism in Aotearoa took place. I’m particularly taken with historical reflections about a specific space and time — perhaps because I find it easier to visualise — and this recount seems to suit that preference. I’ve eagerly picked this up from my local library and I’m looking forward to diving in this break. It’s a history that feels particularly poignant in the current moment. I hope it enlightens a greater understanding of why we stand and speak up today.

People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30)

My appetite for wonderful and witty New Zealand poetry never ceases. A few of the phrases and passages I’ve caught from Joanna Cho’s debut collection have sparked my interest, as they indulge in a cheeky irony (while remaining refreshingly frank). The book is set between New Zealand and South Korea, and centres on the dynamic of the narrator and their mother. I’m looking forward to pondering this one in brief moments of quiet.

Emma Gleason

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NY Review Books, $38)

I adore Eve Babitz and try to save her books for when I’m on holiday and her sensual prose and appetite for life can be properly appreciated. A peer of Joan Didion, she wrote about Los Angeles weather, fashion, food and Hollywood stars with equal zeal, and her books balance juicy subject matter with considerable smarts and a way with words. Eve’s Hollywood is next on my list, and is one of her autobiographical books that makes for very good poolside reading (pretend you’re at Chateau Marmont and going out dancing later, or play guess who with some of the characters).

Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth About the Past by Nathan Bevan (Scorpio Books, $45)

Having recently finished the excellent Culture and Status by W. David Marx, I plan to follow it up with Monumental Lies by Nathan Bevan, which looks at the intersection of culture wars and architecture, and considers revisionism of material history and built forms. I’m fascinated by cities and culture, so this looks great.

Greg Bruce

Swann’s Way (In Search of Lost Time Vol 1) by Marcel Proust (Vintage Classics, $24)

The thing I’m most fascinated by right now is time, which increasingly feels like magic. It moves several multiples faster now than it did when I was a child, or even in my 30s, happens at wildly different speeds depending on whether I’m in a work meeting or reading a book, and there are arguments I find increasingly convincing that it doesn’t even exist. For many years, I have rejected as too time-consuming the idea of reading Proust’s 1.35 million word epic In Search of Lost Time, but I can wait no longer. If there is such a thing as a year, this is the year.

Rebecca Barry Hill

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (Penguin, $26)

After a year of devouring mostly non-fiction and “serious” books, I desperately feel the need for something funny, fantastical, romantic, escapist! Thank you then to my bookworm niece who has unleashed some of her literary hot takes to my nightstand. Among them: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, a “dystopian take on rape culture” according to The Washington Post. Okay, not exactly carefree beach reading but it was long-listed from the Man Booker in 2018.

Last One At The Party by Bethany Clift (Hachette, $35)

Next is Last One At The Party by Bethany Clift, a supposedly comic tale of surviving the end of the world alone (again, dystopian? Telling I suppose given the world’s state of affairs).

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown (Arrow, $25)

Finally, surely, something to lighten the load… All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown, the tale of a Los Angeles housewife and her two daughter’s individual failures, which has been described as “everything wrong with the American Dream”. Of the trio, this sounds the least nihilistic and the most likely to take me away, far, far away… bye 2023!

Joanna Wane

Deborah Levy’s autobiographies

I’ve just discovered British writer Deborah Levy and have totally fallen in love with her. So far, I’ve devoured three of her novels: Hot Milk and Swimming Home (both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and The Man Who Saw Everything (which was longlisted). Levy was born in South Africa, where her father was a member of the African National Congress, and the family fled to England in the 1960s after a crackdown by the apartheid government. I usually stick to fiction, but this summer I plan to work my way through her three volumes of autobiography, which she’s described as “not being written at the end, with hindsight, but “in the storm of life”.

More Great Books

And the people who wrote them.

How Lauren Groff, One Of The ‘Finest Living Writers’ Does Her Work. She works on several novels at once, holding entire, vibrant worlds distinct in her mind.

Booksellers’ Favourite Books Of The Year So Far. For the people who read for a living, the year has seen a pile of standouts.

Time Has Been Codified And Commodified. Jenny Odell Wants To Set It Free. First she examined our obsession with productivity. Now she’s turned to time.

She Wrote A Blistering Satire About Publishing. The Publishing Industry Loves It. In ‘Yellowface’, R.F. Kuang tackles issues like cultural appropriation and representation.

How A Novel About Video Games Became A Surprise Bestseller. Gabrielle Zevin didn’t expect a wide audience for ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’.

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