We offer you a steady stream of reading material here at Jacobin, but most of it probably couldn’t be considered beach material. Rather than remedy that by serializing Bhaskar Sunkara’s unpublished thriller novel about who really assassinated Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, we offer you here our staff’s and contributors’ picks for best summer reads.
Earlier this summer, I interviewed Caribbean politics scholar Brian Meeks about Michael Manley’s democratic socialist administration in Jamaica in the 1970s and the political violence that doomed it. Meeks suggested I read Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and since Jacobin contributing editor (and former Bernie Sanders campaign foreign policy advisor) Daniel Bessner had also recommended the book, I gave it a shot.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is based on the real story of violence between Kingston street gangs affiliated with the conservative Jamaican Labor Party and the socialist People’s National Party. The novel fictionally recounts the events leading up to the politically motivated attempt to assassinate Bob Marley in 1976.
James’s multiple narrators include poor Kingston youth swept up in gang violence, middle-class Jamaicans experiencing spillover from the political turf wars, a CIA agent intent on fueling the conflict to destabilize Manley’s administration ahead of an election, and a Rolling Stone journalist in Kingston to interview Bob Marley who starts to put together the whole picture. This vivid novel is worth reading for anyone curious about how socialism met its demise in Jamaica.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is my favorite Michael Chabon novel, but The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is your best bet for a fun beach read. It’s a detective story, mixed with a bit of rom-com, and set in an alternative history of the world in which the Zionist movement lost the war in 1948 and did not succeed in founding a State of Israel.
Palestine was never colonized, and instead a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, which was established following the second World War in Alaska, grew into a sizeable Yiddish-speaking metropolis of Sitka. That’s the setting where a typical burnt-out-but-brilliant detective tries to untangle a mystery involving chess players, the Jewish mafia, Christian evangelical Zionists, and the US government.
This qualifies as a “beach read” only technically, if you actually read it on a beach, because otherwise it is none of the things one normally considers “beach read.” It is not “light.” It is not “hilarious.” It is not “rip-roaring.”
We could, however, consider it a “vacation read,” in that it’s about a woman who, in the process of splitting from her husband, vacates her life. Each of the three novels in the Outline trilogy follows our barely visible narrator, Faye, who, amidst this major rupture in her life, finds the stories of everything and everyone around her more worth recounting than her own. Faye’s insistence on surfacing even the most mundane details about the people she meets makes ever starker the persistent fact that she is simply no longer of the life to which she once belonged.
We’re all going through similar ruptures, the pandemic ending slowly and then all at once but also maybe not at all. How have we come to define ourselves in this time of separation and distance? Whose stories have we told, and whose have we kept to ourselves? Amid the possible, pending end to our times of purposeful unsociability, Cusk’s work poses the question of whether it’s possible to define ourselves without others against whom we can trace our outline.
Although I’ve encountered Vivian Gornick’s work a number of times, and I’ve heard friends and colleagues praising her books, the first time I actually read her writing was earlier this summer, when I began Fierce Attachments. If, by chance, this is the position you’re in, too, I urge you not to waste any more time living a life in which you have not read Vivian Gornick.
Fierce Attachments is a memoir focused on Gornick’s relationship with her mother, a powerful, sharp-tongued woman whose charisma and intelligence keep her neighbors and friends — and her daughter — in thrall to her. The book combines memories of Gornick’s childhood, growing up in a close-knit tenement building in a working-class, Jewish Communist family in the Bronx, with present-day scenes (it was first published in 1987) in which Gornick and her aged mother take long walks through the streets of Manhattan, dissecting and debating their conflicting experiences of the past.
Gornick’s self-reflection is moving, passionate, and visceral, and her storytelling is engrossing. Picking up Fierce Attachments and becoming immersed in the heady, close-quartered, intimate world of Gornick’s memories felt like meeting someone and knowing right away that you’d like to keep them in your life forever. I can’t wait to begin working through Gornick’s other titles, starting with The Romance of American Communism — I’m envisioning a long and happy future for me and these books.
—Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino
A Memory Called Empire is one of the most compelling science fiction books I’ve ever read. Authored by Arkady Martine (the pen name of AnnaLinden Weller, who was trained as a medieval Byzantine historian), the book is a thought-provoking and entertaining look at a future space empire and the friends it did (and didn’t) make along the way. Martine is especially adept at creating a courtly culture that gives readers a sense of learning about a new, living world.
The President and the Frog is a short and charming novel based on the life of former Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica, who in 2013 told a reporter he survived political imprisonment by talking to a frog.
During the military dictatorship of the 1970s and ’80s, Mujica spent thirteen years in confinement for his participation in the Tupamaro revolutionary movement. Decades later, as president between 2010 and 2015, he declined to live in Uruguay’s executive palace and instead governed from a humble home outside Montevideo, where he farmed chrysanthemums with his wife (and senate president) Lucía Topolansky, also a former revolutionary.
The most arresting scenes in The President and the Frog, due out on August 3, take place in the aging ex-president’s flower garden. Carolina De Robertis’s style is disarmingly romantic (revolution arrives in Latin America as “an immense ocean wave. . . full of faces, thousands of them, flecking the foam”) and unselfconsciously strange. I promise you: this is a political novel unlike any you’ve read before.
I don’t seek out novels about radical politics, since many are no good. A remarkable exception is Doris Lessing’s 1962 masterpiece The Golden Notebook, a brilliant exploration of communist interiority, relationships, and experience. As Jodi Dean argues in Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging (Verso, 2019), The Golden Notebook chronicles the dissolution of the bonds of comradeship, a heartbreak rarely explored in a novel.
The novel centers on Anna, a successful novelist who is suffering from writer’s block and leaving the Communist Party, while discovering that without it she won’t even be the same person. What will be her purpose? The day she quits the party, Anna is at her unpaid job in the party office — rendered, like everything in the novel, with such physical precision: the dress she’s mad to have “wasted” on the office, the secretary’s grimy neck — thinking, “I’m going to miss it when I leave: I find myself thinking: I’m going to miss the illusion of doing something useful, and I wonder if it really is an illusion.”
At one point, Anna observes, “women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists.” It’s a profound observation. But the novel even more profoundly captures the feelings of those yearning for a society that doesn’t yet exist.
Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations is a novel about sickness and death — not typically what you’d consider a “beach read,” except it also happens to be very funny.
After receiving a cancer diagnosis, Ramón, a lawyer in Mexico City, must undergo a glossectomy, the complete removal of his tongue. Expressions of love and support from his wife and two kids perversely contribute to Ramón’s guilt as their burden; it’s his exceedingly Catholic housekeeper, Elodia, who ultimately lifts the master’s spirits when she surprises the family by bringing home a mangy parrot abducted from some rainforest in the south before being smuggled to the notorious Sonora Market. As soon as he’s with the family, the parrot, Benito, begins to squawk every obscenity it learned there, from the common to the obscure. In other words, it gives voice to Ramón’s most earnest sentiments.
The supporting cast of characters — an ambitious oncologist who wants to squeeze a Nobel or Lasker out of the rare illness, a college student suffering from debilitating germophobia (before we all did), and the pot-slinging psychotherapist Ramón starts to see after he assaults his usurious brother with a champagne bottle at a family gathering — make the book. A tragicomedy for the ages, The Mutations strips illness of the moralism so often attached to it.
I don’t think there are any beaches in Atticus Lish’s Preparation For The Next Life. There are jails and crowded rooms, Chinese restaurants, and dirty sidewalks where everyone is trying to sell something to everyone else. But I had to lie down after finishing it, so a day at the beach at least offers the right posture.
It’s a love story, of sorts. The 2014 novel was published by the late Giancarlo DiTrapono’s Tyrant Books, and like Tyrant’s other books, it’s no fairy tale. It follows Zou Lei, an undocumented immigrant from China — she’s an ethnic Uighur — and Skinner, a recent veteran of the United States’ forever wars in the Middle East. Lei’s primary concerns are avoiding deportation and making enough money to survive, until she meets Skinner in a staircase by the food court where she hustles out cheap slop to customers, upon which time he too becomes an all-consuming concern.
Skinner is desperately tormented by his time in the military — even his back is covered in scars. He spends his time working out, and then returns to the basement room he rents to look at fitness magazines and porn, but memories of explosions keep intruding and his 9mm pistol is never far away. They need and can’t get, together and apart. They desire like anyone else, but they simply do not have enough time or money.
Reading the book, you can almost hear a crowded subway car to Queens. Add the sound of waves crashing against a shore and you might get a fitting cacophony.
—Alex N. Press
As a fan of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, I’ve been looking forward to her new book, The Search for Superhuman Strength. In the meantime, I tore through The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a collection of her comics which ran in alternative and gay newspapers throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
For those of us who came up in those years, it’s hard to read without nostalgia as Mo, Lois, and the gang hang out, flirt, and work at the feminist bookstore Madwimmin. We know trouble is coming when a customer asks for a book but then says she’s off to buy it at a new online store: some new start up called Medusa.com. Soon Madwimmin goes under, and the crew is left to debate the merits of shopping or getting a job at “Bounders” or “Bunns and Noodle.”
There’s a lot from those years to not be nostalgic about, of course. Before there was doomscrolling, Mo and her friends spend their anxious decades doom-reading the newspaper and doom/hate listening to NPR. Bechdel often divides panels into a top section where characters struggle to relate to each other, while on the bottom, the drone of bad news about welfare reform, the religious right, and the Iraq war blares from TV, radio, and newspapers, driving our heroines to sublimated and not-so-sublimated rage, mostly ineffectual protest, and anxious displacement. Mo and her girlfriend debate how anyone could fall for the right-wing economic populism of a horrific quasi-fascist presidential candidate. (That would be Pat Buchanan.)
But the rogue’s gallery of forgotten Clinton- and Bush-era scandals can’t mar the fun. Like so many of us now, Bechdel’s characters wonder how they can ever have a nice day at the beach, fall in love, or build a life when the world is burning. Then as now, there are no easy answers, but a day at the beach with The Essential Dykes is as good a place to try as any.
If you liked The Grapes of Wrath, or at least feel like you ought to have liked The Grapes of Wrath, this one is for you. This semi-autobiographical novel traces the life of an American woman from her dirt-poor early childhood on a homestead in the American West, to the dispossession and proletarianization of her family and their desperate search for stability and prosperity.
It’s a story of alienation and political awakening, first through her raw juvenile indignation at the miserable lives of the women around her, to her discovery of socialism and eventually anti-imperialism, after meeting a circle of anti-colonial Indian nationalists in New York City during the first world war.
A novelized (and pseudonymous) memoir, Out of the Night recounts the inner life of a German Communist journeying everywhere from the Baltic to the Philippines, as a cadre of the Communist International’s shipping organization in the 1920s and ’30s. Our hero is torn between his dream of becoming a full-time ship’s captain, his loyalty to his artist wife, and his commitment to a party whose Stalinist discipline he feels increasingly trapped by.
The Weimar Republic framing may seem rather harrowing for a beach read — and the conclusions are sharply anti-communist. But the core boating theme and the author’s evocative style ensure that as you look out to sea, you’ll think: “I wish I had got to smuggle booze for the Communist International’s shipping organization.”
Basil Davidson made his name as a pioneering historian of Africa who produced many outstanding works, but Special Operations Europe is his memoir of the experience that primed him to spend so much time in the company of left-wing African guerrillas. During the Second World War, Davidson worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) established by Winston Churchill to assist the anti-Nazi resistance movements of continental Europe. He spent time fighting with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia and took part in the liberation of Belgrade. After taking a short break in Egypt, he volunteered for another dangerous mission with the resistance in northern Italy.
After the partisans in Genoa brought an entire German garrison to its knees, without any assistance from the Anglo-American force kicking its heels just a few miles away, it was Davidson who took the German surrender, as the only ranking Allied officer on the scene. He describes acting as translator for an awkward meeting between the partisan leaders and the US commanding officer who wanted them to hand over their weapons. At a particularly fraught moment, they looked out the window to see thousands and thousands of German soldiers being marched into captivity by the jubilant partisans. The American began to go pale and realized it was time for a more tactful approach.
Davidson wrote from the viewpoint of an independent-minded left-winger who rejected Cold War anti-communism but never took his line from Moscow (indeed, he was specifically denounced at one of Stalin’s East European show trials after the war). He paid moving tribute to the bravery and idealism of the overwhelmingly young partisans, many of whom gave their lives to the cause, while saying virtually nothing about the risks he had to face himself.
When he wrote Special Operations Europe in 1980, Davidson was trying to counter creeping historical revisionism that depicted left-wing partisans as the mirror image of the genocidal regime against which they were fighting. Since the book was published, that kind of revisionism has become much more virulent and achieved near-hegemonic status in certain quarters. Special Operations Europe is a brilliant corrective, but it’s also a riveting story that you’ll find impossible to put down.
As a novel, Cunningham’s 1935 The Green Corn Rebellion is fairly unremarkable, with just-serviceable prose and mostly two-dimensional characters. But the plot propels this one forward: Cunningham’s topic is the Green Corn Rebellion, a remarkable failed insurrection in World War I–era Oklahoma, one of the redoubts of the Socialist Party of America.
We see poor farmers moved to cut telegraph lines, blow up a bridge, and assemble with arms to march to Washington against the “rich man’s war.” They fail, of course. But this is one of those wild American tales that Hollywood should have adapted years ago.
Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus is the funniest, smartest, most exhilarating read of the year. It’s the story of two Jews and their crazy families, and why one produces the masters of history while the other becomes its archivist. And in that story is a larger tale about liberals, Israel, the Diaspora, American college campuses, identity politics, and what happens to a subjugated minority when the empire they live in is on the road to hell.
Written with a feel for the moment and an ambition for the ages, it has the manic energy of Philip Roth and the slow, sad comedy of Joseph Roth. Perfect for the beach; you can read it in an afternoon.