The Three Best Books I Read Over The Summer Break
I never consume more books than when I’m on vacation. I think it’s because I’m more relaxed. Or maybe it’s because I’m not limited by that small window of time deemed “appropriate” for “reading for pleasure”. 11am on a Tuesday in the middle of January? Perfect. 11am on a Tuesday in the middle of September? Delusional.
I do most of my vacation-reading as soon as I wake, usually over breakfast and always over a big pot of coffee. And this summer, there were three books in particular that I found myself reflexively reaching for each morning.
The title of Eddo-Lodge’s Sunday Times bestseller was first used in a widely read blog post back in 2014, in which the British journalist and feminist explained why she would no longer be engaging with “the vast majority” of white people on the topic of race, because they “refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.” As Silvia Viñas wrote for NPR, “In that post, Eddo-Lodge wasn’t trying to remove white people from the conversation or take them on a guilt trip; rather, she was simply saying that she’d had enough. It was an act of self-preservation. She was done with talking to white people who’d never had to think about what it meant to be white, or who showed a deep emotional disconnect when she told them about her experience as a black woman.”
Eddo-Lodge’s critically-acclaimed book is made up of seven essays, all of which take white Brits to task for talking about racism by not talking about it, or by deflecting, inaccurately making the argument about “free speech”, and using dangerous rhetoric like “reverse racism”. She also interrogates how Britain got to this point: Events like the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a racist white gang, fuelled by hatred, who escaped justice through multiple police failings and witnesses who were “too scared” to come forward. Lawrence’s mother said, when the men were finally prosecuted 18 years later, “Had the police done their job properly, I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court.”
One of the reasons I found the book so impactful was because my knowledge of the history of racism in Britain was incredibly limited. So much of the public discourse I’ve consumed about racism has been based on American history, which meant I’d been under the false assumption that structural racism wasn’t as insidious or prominent in Britain as it is in the US. This is patently false and this book illuminates that perfectly.
In a lot of ways, it feels like the topic of women consciously choosing to not have children has only recently made its way into public discourse. Before that, it was a sentiment that most knew existed but weren’t willing to openly acknowledge. Perhaps because, historically, we’ve falsely conflated femininity with fertility; struggled to separate womanhood from motherhood; and we still live in a society that is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a woman being happy navigating life *alone*.
Emma Gannon takes this topic – women who are childfree by choice (CFC) – and packages it into a light, funny and honest exploration of the myriad decisions adult women must face.
The main story takes place in 2019, as the book’s protagonist, Olive, and her four friends paths start to diverge as they wade into their thirties. Bea is single-parenting her three children while her husband travels for work; Cecily, a successful lawyer, is pregnant and exhausted; and Isla is crippled with endometriosis pain and depressed about her failed IVF attempts. An editor at a popular online magazine, Olive is good at her job and secure in her position at work, but her nine-year relationship with Jacob has just ended when the pair couldn’t agree about children. And, unlike stereotypical gender norms, it’s not Jacob who doesn’t want children – it’s Olive.
I’ve always known I want children, and this book made me consider more deeply the experiences of women unlike me; those who intuitively know that motherhood is not in their future, and yet constantly find themselves needing to explain or justify their decision, or worse, are gaslit into believing that they do not know their own mind – that the way they feel is temporary; that they will change their mind.
It must be f*cking exhausting.
Where Olive took a serious topic and wrapped it in levity and humour, Candice Carty-Williams’ critically-acclaimed novel Queenie does the exact opposite, by taking a traditionally light plot line (“single twenty-something female dating and working in the big city”), and lacing it with frank discussions of race, politics and identity.
When we first meet 25-year-old journalist Queenie, she’s going through a few major changes in her life: The most dramatic being that her boyfriend has asked for a “break” that everyone but Queenie can clearly see is a permanent break-up. The fall out from this sends her spiralling down a road of casual sex, distractions from her job, and generally destructive behaviour, all the while navigating subtle and not-so-subtle experiences of racism and unresolved trauma from her childhood.
The plot isn’t the most important point of this book – there’s no big “moment” or dramatic conclusion that the chapters are building towards. Instead it’s the relationship you form with Queenie: You can’t help but fall in love with her, the same way you grow to love a favourite sibling. She’s hilarious, intelligent, and intensely-flawed. She’s smart and self-sabotaging. You’re rooting for her. Desperate to see things work out for her.
Queenie is both deeply funny and deeply sad. Equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. It’s about love and dating, race and politics, the friendships that buoy us, and the uncomfortable journey we must all take towards self-acceptance. A perfect summer read.
Header images sourced from Google