Professor Wu’s essential summer reading list

Book and Stones

Summertime. The time when the living is easy, apparently. Also the time when we look for breezy, beachy books to take with us on our travels around the world. But what about books that help us actually take other, metaphorical, journeys? Obviously metaphorical journeys won’t necessarily give you the best pictures to post on Facebook or Instagram – and you might not even get a tan! – but they can be both spiritual and intellectual, while they also cost significantly less than a return trip to that 5* all-inclusive resort in the Maldives; so it’s a win-win situation, really.

So how does one take said metaphorical journey? Fortunately, there’s no need to get Tripadvisor involved here. In fact, it’s rather simple: all it takes is a good book and a bit of your time!

But what books to read? That Harry Potter collection under your bed has had its day, I fear, and what are you doing reaching for that dusty copy of War and Peace? It might be brilliant, but is it summer reading brilliant? At over 1200 pages, I’m not so sure. Instead, I feel it’s best to opt for some really rather marvellous books, which pack a lot more bite than your classic holiday lit; but which don’t weigh more than your entire luggage allowance.

As such, I’ve put together my essential summer reading list for 2015 – so here you can find three books guaranteed to take you places you’d never dreamed of. Enjoy!

The trick is to keep breathing – Janice Galloway

So, what gives? As well as being a simple yet effective life hack for anyone seeking an easy win in the constant battle against death, Galloway’s the trick is to keep breathing is also a deviously intricate novel about mental health and gender roles.

Lost the plot? The central character of Joy Stone has just lost her married lover, a fellow teacher from the local school, in a terrible drowning accident while they were on holiday. The book contains short dream-like passages which piece together that dreadful event. On returning from overseas, Joy is ostracised by her colleagues and friends. She is the unwanted reminder of a less than perfect life, and it is not how people want to remember the dead. Everyone – including Joy, at least in part – wishes she would disappear. Galloway manages to convey a life where every little task becomes unimaginable, overwhelming and virtually impossible. The detail and the effort are beautifully rendered in Galloway’s unsentimental and often disconcerting writing. There is humour, but in context it is of the blackest kind.

Verdict: The perfect literary companion for married teachers to read while on holiday – preferably while their SO is taking a dip in the sea.

The Absent Therapist – Will Eaves

So, what gives? Well, what doesn’t? This is a fabulous book – not a novel; not a collection of short stories – but rather a collage of over 200 mini-narratives; thoughts and voices of different people about different places, different memories, other people, other stories. Some of these voices and people recur, but that isn’t to say there’s a linear story here. More than anything, it’s a compilation of different experiences; more than anything, it’s about life.

Woah: Yep. Each of these narratives makes sense on their own, and where characters or voices or places recur there’s some tantalizing hint at something larger, more complex and significant at work. But isn’t that just true of life in general? We exist through a collection of myriad different places, events and people – only ever able to catch the smallest of glimpses at what greater meaning there may – or may not – be. It’s only by looking at events and moments – and listening to voices – one at a time that they become manageable. You have to whittle life down to these individual scenes and narratives to make sense of it; otherwise it builds up in one great tumultuous event that doesn’t make sense. And that’s possibly what makes The Absent Therapist so interesting: it is, quite possibly, fantastically insane. Yet, irrespective of this; it simply seems to make sense.

Verdict: While listening to the waves of the sea, open this book and let the stories wash over you. Immerse yourself in these funny, wry, acute and startling observations; snapshots and overheard conversations  – all written in a flawless, vivid and compelling style and mixed in with deeper intellectual thought and discussion on all manner of topics – from sex to existence, as it were.

Butchers Crossing – John Williams

So, what gives? This, quite simply, is a novel for all disenchanted university graduates whose disillusionment with societal pressure to take up jobs ‘in the city’ has led them to wonder what it would be like to step outside civilization for a while and spend a gap year slaughtering buffalo.

We’ve all been there. For sure, the protagonist Will Andrews’s general malaise at post university life is as much a driving narrative force in the novel as the relentless character of Miller, whose determination to seek out and kill the now extinct American Buffalo drives the characters out to a wilderness both physical and psychological. There are of course clear themes of humanities rapacious consumption – pertinent in this day and age of unrestrained capitalism and striving for growth at any ecological cost – but this is primarily a literary western. There’s also something deliciously evil and human about seeking out a great and rare hidden, beautiful treasure – in this case, the last great herd of buffalo hidden in a lost valley in the Rocky Mountains – and destroying it on sight.

Verdict: Set yourself up with a large, thirst quenching cocktail and within a short distance of an all-you-can eat buffet on some all-inclusive Mediterranean holiday and enjoy reading Williams’s pitiless depiction of men reduced to the most basic and extreme situations: thirst, cold, heat, exhaustion; and isolation. Preferably discuss over some expensive steak – cow, I guess; for want of buffalo meat.

4 thoughts on “Professor Wu’s essential summer reading list

  1. Pingback: What is literature for? | nothingintherulebook

  2. Pingback: The Inevitable Gift Shop – A memoir by other means | nothingintherulebook

  3. Pingback: An evening with Will Eaves and the Absent Therapist | nothingintherulebook

  4. Pingback: The Absent Therapist: ten of the best excerpts | nothingintherulebook

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