Finally, after months and years of waiting, the public have got what they have been crying out for (in well-mannered, almost whispered tones): a look at exiting-President Barack Obama’s 5-strong summer reading list. (He’s even had time to put together a chart-topping Spotify Playlist – he’s really doing no work at all anymore is he?)
Are there many surprises on this list? No, not really. It’s a perfectly balanced summary of mid low- to mid high-brow fiction that encompasses life, death, childhood, the real, the fake, the apocalyptic and the historically moving.
Anyone hoping that Twilight, or Portnoy’s Complaint, or Post Office or 50 Shades make a rogue appearance on the list – will have been disappointed; this is a middle-of-the-road PR master class in inoffensive fiction that bends no one out of shape.
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan is a memoir describing the life of a surfing obsessive who grew up in Hawaii; no Poirots required to make the connection there. The Underground Railroad has been chosen as Oprah’s latest book, and tracks a slave’s quest for freedom from a Georgian cotton plantation. British readers will be familiar with H for Hawk, a sort of memoir-biography fusion by Helen MacDonald, which follows her as she mourns the passing of her father while learning how to train a hawk. The choice of The Girl on the Train adds Obama to the list of 900 million other people who are absolutely beside themselves with how amazing it is. And finally Seveneves, a significantly less well-known title, is an ominous account of human life after an unspecified apocalyptic event – the obvious answer being a certain custard-topped mop jumping into Obama’s seat while it’s still warm.
Anything Obama can do, we can do too, so here are five summer picks from the Pigeon that are hopefully a lot more offensive.
- This is London by Ben Judah published by Pan Macmillan
A mind-boggling volume of research must have gone into this book – and if that wasn’t reason enough to read it, it’s also bloody amazing. In his quest to discover what modern-day London has become, Judah sleeps rough in Mayfair subways talking to Romanian beggars, moves into an Enfield boarding house to share a room with seven other immigrants working hand to mouth wherever they can, talks at length to a Shepherds Bush drug dealer and befriends an eastern-European prostitute who uncovers the details of a recent murder. That is just the tip of this gargantuan urban iceberg of investigative journalism. Judah has written a morbidly gripping non-fiction book that reads like a cross between The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, less the sentimentalisation of the homeless.
- You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott published by Pan Macmillan
In this ambitious psychological thriller, Abbott gives the world of competitive gymnastics a lethal edge. A family who have dedicated everything to the furthering of their daughter’s dream (which is definitely theirs too) are caught up in the aftermath of a hit-and-run accident that sends shockwaves through what you’d expect to be a flexible community. There’s a lot of fuss around this book, and we are fussing too.
- The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers re-issued by The Pigeonhole
Obama declined to select any bonafide classics, and we think that’s a mistake, Mr President. As summer reads go, Riddle is about as perfect as it gets. Two young men out and about in their sailing boat discover a whole lot more than they bargained for – namely, a massive blooming invasion. Espionage fiction as we know it would not be the same if it weren’t for Mr Childers – a man so utterly Bond in his essence, he was still making jokes as the firing squad lined up to move him into the deceased column. Luckily for you we are serialising this on The Pigeonhole.
- Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household published by Orion
Where Obama was balanced, we are being ever so slightly lopsided. While Rogue Male isn’t really a spy novel, it has some overlaps with Riddle. Our protagonist, who couldn’t be more of a rogue male if he started tickling grizzlies, ends a jaunt in Europe by casually trying to assassinate Adolf Hitler as if he’s a fun little tin can waiting to be tipped over. After being captured, tortured and then somehow escaping – looking, I imagine, like an inside-out male – the world’s most ridiculous game of hide and seek is played out in a hedgerow in Dorset. It’s a hum-dinger.
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry published by Faber & Faber
This is, quite simply, one of the best novels ever written about India. We follow the characters in A Fine Balance from independence in 1947, and the horrors of partition, through to the brutality of Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency, a time when huge numbers of poor men were hoodwinked into sterilisation in exchange for a portable radio by Sanjay, Indira’s son. In this sprawling masterpiece, Mistry touches on characters from a variety of societal strata, and though it’s hardly a barrel of laughs, by the end you’ll feel enriched and edified and, most importantly, informed.
So there they are – the Pigeon’s summer reads. Pick and choose as you see fit, and let us know what you are reading this summer @ThePigeonholeHQ.