Whether it’s the recent summer sun that flooded through my living room windows, or today’s unseasonal torrential rain, summer always makes me want to become horizontal on the couch (or at the beach, weather permitting!) with a good book in my hands. This made me think about all the amazing books I’ve read this year and all the incredible books I have not read yet. It also occurred to me that all books engage with psychology in some way because all books have characters that we learn the inner workings of, and can hence prompt us to reflect on our own experiences. And not just an enjoyable pass-time, reading also has positive impacts on our mental health, including increasing our empathy, improving our attention and reducing our anxiety. So without further ado, here is (part one of!) a list of books which have left a lasting impression on me and that I highly recommend for your summer reading!
Witty Takes On Human Suffering
- The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath. This classic will never lose relevance. Plath takes the reader into deep corners of the talented, beautiful, and successful Esther Greenwood’s psyche as she slowly comes undone in New York society.
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh. The basic premise is about a year in which a woman is adamant about doing nothing other than sleeping. This book offers a sharp commentary on the modern world, isolation, languishing, and the discipline of psychiatry today.
- How Should a Person Be – Sheila Heti. It’s been coined an ‘autobiography of the mind’ and ‘a postmodern self-help book’. This read is for all the artists and existentialists out there as Heti truly examines the question – how should a person be in this world?
- The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (Fiction). This is a chilling psychological thriller about the aesthetically pure character Dorian Gray, whose perfect physical appearance does not change with age but rather a portrait of him he keeps hidden away does. Wilde explores the themes of narcissism, the beauty bias, a culture that fetishizes youth and how one cannot have their cake and eat it too. It is a truly colourful and stressful tale that was so profound Wilde did not write another book after.
- Milk Fed – Melissa Broder 2021 (Fiction) A hilarious enmeshment of food, sex and God from the perspective of a 24-year-old Jewish woman with a severe eating disorder. Vivid and fantastical, this is an unconventional and hilarious journey of one young woman’s self-discovery and experience of finding freedom.
- Red Arrow – William Brewer. This dark comic features a once-promising writer who needs money and agrees to ghost-write a famous physicist’s memoir while at the same time confronting the ‘mist’, which is a term the narrator uses for his lifelong depression. From a chemical spill in West Virginia to Silicon Valley to a Brooklyn art studio and a high-speed train racing across the Italian countryside, Red Arrow wades into the shadowy depths of the human psyche and comes out the other side in a way you would not expect.
All Things Relationships
- Anything – Dolly Alderton. Author of Everything I Know About Love, Ghosts, Dear Dolly, and her newest title Good Material, Alderton’s books do not disappoint in their depictions of the trials and tribulations of transitioning to adulthood. In all her work you will find wildly funny, honest, and candid depictions of growing up, growing older, and learning to navigate friendships, jobs, loss, and love.
- Seven Types of Ambiguity – Elliot Perlman. Told in six parts from the perspective of six different narrators whose lives are intertwined in unusual ways. This psychological thriller is full of emotional, intellectual, and moral dilemmas.
- The Forbidden Notebook – Alba de Cespedes. Told from the intimate perspective of Valeria Cossati, a wife, mother, and secretary who one day, on a complete whim, purchases a notebook from the shop where she buys her husband’s cigarettes. Journaling has become an addictive and coveted hobby of hers. It leads her to scrutinize herself and her life in a way she has not before giving way to realisations that threaten the fabric of her family.
Coming Of Age For All Ages
- Hot Milk – Deborah Levy: The title speaks volumes in that Levy has created a surreal, dreamlike, slightly off atmosphere. It follows a mother and a daughter who seek out a small village on the Spanish coast – though not for a holiday but rather to get to the bottom of the mother’s enigmatic illness. Awash with heat, restlessness and seduction, the reader explores the monstrous nature of womanhood as the two women see their lives clearly for the very first time.
- The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho: I remember when I worked at a bookstore one busy summer and was shocked at how many people called and approached my desk in search of this title. It was after the eighth inquiry in a single week that I bought it with my staff discount and learned it is a modern classic. This short, tight tale combines magic, mysticism, wisdom, and wonder into a story of self-discovery.
- The Years – Annie Ernaux. It is rare for me to close a book after reading the first page and want to go back right to the start to do the whole thing over again. It’s a collage of words, which borrow from memory, impressions, photos, books, songs, radio, television and decades of advertising, headlines, conversations, and observations. The final picture is a memoir not just of Annie but of the world and the passing of time from 1941 to 2006.
- Theft by Finding – David Sedaris. I’ve been listening to this as an audiobook read by David Sedaris himself and have found myself laughing out loud many times. The observations, which span forty years of Sedaris keeping a diary, are cunning, honest and earnest. Sedaris pays attention to the world in all its irony and complexity. In this, you see that nothing is boring and there is narrative imbued in every aspect of our day-to-day lives.
If You’ve Got The Time
- Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This love story achieves so much. It follows Ifemelu and Obinze, who abandoned military-ruled Nigeria for a better life in the west. One goes to America, the other to London. Nearly two decades later, the two reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria and reignite their passion—for each other and their homeland. On one level, it is an absorbing and breathtaking story; on another, it is a rigorous examination of race in the UK and USA.
- Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy. It’s acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, and I have to agree. I remember reading this epic, dropping the book in my lap often and declaring to my partner: Tolstoy is a genius! Imaginative, insightful, psychologically accurate and provocative. Tolstoy has created some of the most memorable characters in the history of the written word. Despite the various characters’ many flaws, wrongdoings and declarations, Tolstoy casts no judgment and merely invites the reader to watch as his beautifully written chaos unfolds.
If You Don’t Have The Time
- Cold Enough for Snow – Jessica Au. In this short book, a mother and daughter meet for a holiday in Tokyo. The narrator sways between her internal world and her external environment, reflecting on the memories she has subconsciously held on to while she tries to enjoy a holiday with her mother, whom she struggles to connect with. This delicate book leaves you wondering if any of us – even those we are related to – speak a common language and if we ever truly know what another person is experiencing.
- The Dry Heart – Natalia Ginzburg: On page one, the story begins with the matter-of-fact description of a murder, that of the narrator’s husband, inflicted by the narrator herself. Ginzburg’s writing is unsentimental, icy, and spectacular in this tale of one woman’s life and marriage, which is plagued by disappointment, loneliness, and resentment.
- Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan. The story is set in 1985, the week leading up to Christmas. Bill, a small-town coal trader and family man, makes a disturbing discovery when making a Christmas delivery to the local convent. It may only be one hundred pages long, but this is a deeply affecting story of hope, quiet heroism, and human empathy.
I hope you enjoy adding these treasures to your summer reading list. Stay tuned for Part Two, later this week, where I’ll cover books from our own backyard, moving and thought provoking reads, and those filled with light and joy. Happy reading!