It’s that time of year when we’re bombarded with recommendations of what to read while on the beach or in the garden or, if your British and it’s raining, in the camper or beach hut. The New Yorker’s recommendations start with ‘For your summer reading, it might be nice to go with something relatively light.’ As I’ve been reading these listacles and adding a couple of titles to my Amazon Wishlist (though eventually I’ll get some from the library), I’ve noticed what’s missing – the books I’ve been reading so far this summer. Explainer: with an apartment in Nice and no school calendar to follow, my summer began in mid-May. I’m not complaining.
The three fiction books I’ve read for my first half of summer, and summer does seem to be more about fiction, are all authored by Ukrainian writers. While a couple have had favourable reviews in the popular press, with one on the New York Times best-seller list, none of them appear to be worthy of ‘summer reads.’ Is summer reading all about light subject matters for our holiday-mode brains? Or is there an unwritten rule among media outlets that summer reading should be detached from the harsh realities of current events?
Ignoring the summer hit list, my reading choices came from my friends and book reviews from earlier in the year.
Late May was consumed by Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages by Maria Matios. A deceptively simple read with a hint of magical realism, it could have been on any summer list. Perhaps it didn’t make the cut because it deals with some of the cruelty of life in Ukraine. Not the Ukraine that has been in our news since late February. This novel is set in a rural Carpathian village from the 1940s to the 60s, telling the story in three parts in reverse chronological order. The dysfunctional and often brutal lives of the two families at the centre of these interlocked tales have their moments of dry humour and weirdness. Ultimately it takes the reader back to the Second World War when the village was seized by the Romanians, followed by the Soviets, the Germans and back to the Soviets again. Though not a story about war, the fighting holds a shadowy presence. ‘Life and war continued simultaneously, at the same time dependent on and independent from one another.’
A few weeks in June went to Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov. Set soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea when Russian-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainians in Donetsk and Luhansk, this story is all about war but from the view of civilians caught up in it. During this conflict, Donbas became a grey zone, which included a village where only a beekeeper and a ‘sort of friend’- that is, a friend of convenience – remain with limited resources. More of a page turner than Sweet Darusya, Grey Bees has characters I cared about and could chuckle with. The novel is sprinkled with light touches of humour and socio-political satire, and yet at the same time manages to convey the gravity of the circumstances for these lost souls.
I’ve ended this Ukrainian trio last week with a collection of stories by Oksana Zabuzhko called Your Ad Could Go Here. Indeed, the stories are as diverse as advertisements, a potpourri of subjects, written with the sophistication and bizarre juxtaposition of Zabuzhko’s celebrated poetry. I’ll let her prose speak for itself in this passage of a woman trying to go about her routine the morning after a casual sex encounter:
“Later she takes a long, thorough bath, and brushes her teeth three times because the odour seems permanent, and when she steps out of the bath, it’s starting to turn grey outside. Vovka Lasota lies in her bed with his head wrapped in the sheets like a Bedouin corpse ready for burial, and just like the dead Bedouin, he has nowhere to go (sure, divorce isn’t easy on anyone, especially on men, who soon seem like abandoned dogs who’ll lick anyone, seeking a master).”
I’m glad I didn’t let the heat wave (39C in Ely last week) stop me from taking in these books that might not be beach reading but seem as important as they were enjoyable. Forget the summer reading listacles, I’m keeping some of my thoughts with people trapped in this ruthless war.