Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I read two of Joan Didion’s memoirs earlier this summer and couldn’t put them down, so when I saw Play It As It Lays, one of her fictions, on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I had to pick it up. The novel is set in 1960s Hollywood and explores the position of women in society and mental illness, among other themes. It’s very poignantly written, and the reading experience was disturbing and affective despite the fact that the plot isn’t overly momentous or action-driven. Didion is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I highly, highly recommend this novel.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. Though I’ve only read two of his books, Herman Koch is another one of my favorite writers. I read The Dinner last summer and adored it, so I picked up Summer House with Swimming Pool to read on a recent trip to the beach. The novel follows a doctor and his family as they spend their summer vacation at the beach house of one of his clients, a famous but sleazy actor who we know from the outset will die by the narrator’s hands before the novel’s conclusion. Koch is really great at using nonlinear narratives, unreliable narrators, and unlikeable and controversial characters to create his engrossing psychological thrillers. Koch says in interviews that one of his goals in writing his novels is to be controversial, push boundaries, and make readers question societal values and judgments, and this novel definitely does all of those things. Koch plays with the idea of moral absolutism, the boundaries of sexual behaviors, misogyny, and the absurdity of fame and privilege.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. My Brilliant Friend is, hands down, my favorite read of the summer so far. Lately, I’ve been trying to read a more diverse selection of writers, including those whose works have been translated into English. My Brilliant Friend falls into this category (along with Summer House with Swimming Pool), as it was originally published in Italian. I’ve heard so many intriguing things about Elena Ferrante and her writing and was not let down my My Brilliant Friend. My Brilliant Friend is part of a series by Ferrante and tells the story of friendship between two girls, the unspoken competition within their friendship, and their struggles to feel worthwhile and follow dreams that are different than what is expected of them given the social politics of their poor Italian neighborhood. Definitely read this novel.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. In a moment of nostalgia for last summer when I studied abroad in England, I decided to read some Shakespeare so I could annotate a play or two while I drank tea and pretended I was in Oxford and not spending the summer working at home in Alabama. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is hilarious and tackles some real-life concerns under the guise of lightheartedness. It has magic, fairies, star-crossed lovers, a man with the head of a donkey, love triangles, and it reads with the ease and flow that is typical of Shakespeare’s other plays. References to this play are so pervasive in popular culture, which, combined with the merits of the play itself, makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream a must-read.
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. I started reading this book back in high school and abandoned it about halfway through. An Object of Beauty is a novel based in the New York City art world and follows a recent college graduate for a period of several years as she manipulates, schemes, and uses her sexuality to get ahead in the art world. After taking several classes in art history and becoming more familiar with renowned artists, their work, and the nature of the art market, I decided to give An Object of Beauty another try. I did not love this novel. I found the characters to be flat, uninteresting, and cliche, and I thought the ending wrapped up a little too neatly for all the characters involved, but Martin, who is an art lover himself, offers some interesting opinions on the nature and value of art. My advice for you if you decide to read this book is to read it for Martin’s insights about the art market and not for the plot, which I found rather lackluster and contrived. I wouldn’t go so far as to not recommend this book, but I think it’s very much geared toward people who have a better-than-average knowledge of art and artists.
What have you read this summer?