Cultures Literature

Summer Reading Recommendations

Happy Summer! I can’t believe we are here, wow. If you are anything like me, you are going to be spending a fair bit of time this summer just reading for fun, basking in the brilliance of not having to conform to a reading list. If you are stuck on where to begin I’ve compiled a cheeky little list. I have tried to put something on for everyone and match recommendations to multiple different themes. I’ve even put some non-fiction on there (the English Student in me is quaking right now!). But, in all seriousness, each one of these books is incredible and are well worth a summer read. 

And for those who like to judge a book by its cover, just click on the title…

For those missing Oxford – Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

wow quote – “sometimes I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all”

A perfect summer read, I should know as I first came across this book in a charity book sale on a sunny Welsh Beach (I know, shocking!) . Brideshead is a beautiful story, soul-scarring at times, but really magical. The first half is set in Hertford College, Oxford and Waugh’s presentations of the light academia aesthetic is *chef’s kiss*. All I’m going to say is, watch out for Aloysius. 

A Classic – Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy 

wow quote – “it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs”

A Hardy which often pales under the shadow of the juggernauts that are Tess and Jude, but worth reading all the same. Considered the most pastoral of Hardy’s novels, read it for the stunning descriptions of the Wessex countryside. But also read it for the characters, fall in love with Gabriel Oak (honestly the boyfriend we all want to have), become frustrated for Bathsheba as she fights to have her voice heard in a man’s world, oh and please curse Sergeant Troy! 

Something like nothing else you’ve read before – The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan  (content warning)

wow quotes – 

Comfort: “finding themselves reborn through an unexpected passion, they had to invent themselves anew, name themselves as a new-born child, or a new character, a sudden intruder in a novel, is named”

Cement: “I felt stifled, everything I looked at reminded me of myself” 

How do you describe McEwan’s early novels in 3 words?: ‘darker than imaginable’. All I’m going to say is…watch out for the endings. 

Poetry – Dearly, Margaret Atwood

wow quote – “the world that we think we see/ is only our best guess”

Atwood often says she is a poet primarily and an author second. Yes, her novels are amazing and world-changing (and a big finger up to totalitarianism and patriarchy, yay!) but they are also loud. Her poetry is beautiful in its quietness. I recommend Dearly because it’s her newest collection and so is rich with her unique experience. It’s really quite wow, and not hackneyed in the slightest, which is impressive considering just how present Atwood is in popular culture today.  

Drama – Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth (content warning)

wow quote – “The world turns. And it turns. And it moves and you don’t. You’re still here.” 

Voted by the Guardian as the greatest play of the 21st century, and deservedly so! There is noise on the grapevine of a potential revival coming out after the coronavirus pandemic, with Mark Rylance returning as Rooster which is very, very exciting. The play is simply incredible. It will surprise you, in the best possible way! Retelling classical and Irish mythology through the plights of the roughest characters you could possibly imagine sounds like a recipe for disaster…yet Butterworth doesn’t only make it work, he provides you with pure magic

Non-Fiction – We should all be FeministsChimanda Ngozi Adichie 

wow quote – “My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better”

Okay this is cheating a tiny bit, because this is a transcription of a TED talk (shhh). Watch the talk, read the transcription, I don’t mind…but please dedicate 30 minutes of your long long summer to Adichie. I cannot stress enough just how important this talk is, I honestly think it will still be relevant one hundred years from now. 

Something Topical – Frankisstein, Jeanette Winterson (content warning)

wow quote – “Is Donald Trump getting his brain frozen? Asks Ron. Max explains that the brain has to be fully functional at clinical death.” 

Winterson’s rewriting of the Frankenstein story as a narrative about gender and sexual ambiguity is so brilliant because it is so necessary. Reading this book made me not only see Shelley and her narrative in a different light but also made me reconsider the world as a whole. I cannot recommend it enough. 

Catharsis – The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (content warning)

wow quote – “sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us” 

Okay, this one is going to be a long road – physically (because the book is 900 pages!) and emotionally (because you will experience every feeling under the sun)…but stick with the journey. Honestly, there is no fiction quite like it – it absolutely deserved the Pulitzer. I dare you to read it and not fall in love with Boris, I don’t think it’s possible. Just writing these fifty words makes me want to enter Theo’s messy world all over again.  

To warm your heart – And the Mountains EchoedKhaled Hosseini (content warning)

wow quote – “a story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later” 

Disclaimer: Hosseini will rip apart your heart before he begins to warm it, but aren’t the most beautiful stories the most tragic? 

And The Mountains Echoed is a stunningly realised tale of family, of the unbreakable bond between siblings, of emotions and people pushed to the absolute limit. But watching Hosseini’s sets of sibling fight to survive against impossible odds, watching them love each other endlessly and in spite of their situations, will warm your heart more than any conventionally happy story. I promise. 

One from my shelf – Burial Rites, Hannah Kent (content warning)

wow quote – “I don’t want to be remembered; I want to be here!” 

I’m going to end with one of my personal favourites. Set in the early 1800s Iceland Burial Rites reimagines the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to ever be hanged in Iceland. But this is more than your run of the mill feminist retelling of a historical event. It is a study in humanity, in otherness, in class differences, in family. It is a perfect and decidedly unique blending of Norse mythology with real life stories; and, despite it being set so far in the past and in a world so very different from ours, Agnes’ story feels uncanny in its familiarity. Yes, it is probably the least well-known book on this list, but don’t let that fool you; despite its commercial quietness, Burial Rites really is an incredible incredible book. 

I hope these books make your summer reading a little sunnier. Have a fabby, fabby summer, reading or not, we’ve totally earned it.

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably chopping about on the Isis River.