In the Arena

Summer Reading

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There are, inevitably, scads of recommendations for beach reading at the start of every summer. I’d like to reverse that and recommend two extraordinary among the dozen I’ve read since the solstice. Both are written by women–both might even be called “women’s” books. But I’ve always been a fan of women, women writers and women singers: guys tend to plot better; women excel at character and emotions. (The same now seems to be true in film direction: the best movie I’ve seen this summer, perhaps this year–The Kids Are All Right–was directed by a woman.)

In any case, both these books are simply perfect:

Journey from the Land of No by Roya Hakakian is a memoir written by a Jewish Iranian who was a teenager at the time of the Khomeini revolution. But this isn’t one of those standard sagas of oppression that are deeply worthy and predictably harrowing–it is written with a deft sense of irony and an eye for  the absurd. Hakakian lingers, lovingly, on the quality of daily life in Iran’s pre-revolutionary Jewish community, her family and schoolmates. But the menace and monumental dopiness of the religious fanatics who take over the government is always in the background and then, occasionally, in a terrifying way, in the foreground. The fact that this book was written in English, which is Hakakian’s second language (she writes poetry in Farsi) makes the quality of the prose all the more remarkable.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson is the sort of book that isn’t given much shrift by the major book reviews, but it is delightful in every way. It is one of those wry, low-key rural English comedies of manners that transcends because it is brilliantly observed and because the manners in question are relatively new ones, concerning the interplay between the Brits and their South Asian immigrants (to call this a clash of civilizations is far too crude; it is more a nudge of civilizations). This is a lovely, funny, effervescent novel, the best I’ve read this year.