Insights’ Summer Reading Guide 2021/22
Christmas and New Year is a time to slow down, enjoy a hard-earned break and enjoy a great read.
Whether that’s a physical book, an audiobook, or a Kindle or device, there’s something great about immersing yourself in a gripping, heartwarming or just plain absorbing story. Each year, we try to compile a diverse range of books for a variety of tastes. So here are some great suggestions and special mentions.
Girt Nation by David Hunt
History can be taken too seriously, but not by David Hunt. He has an ear for the absurd, and his history of Australia is irreverent and, be warned, often bawdy. But then that is an undoubted underbelly of the story of our nation. His book is ‘unauthorised’ because, he writes, it’s good to challenge pseudo-official blinkered and sanitised distortions of history.
Girt Nation is the third in the series, covering the late nineteenth century, when the states, despite being unable to agree on football, were heading for the climax of Federation, when Australia would become a proud, independent nation (while still clinging tightly to Britain’s apron strings).
It was a time when religious tensions were exacerbated by creating two education streams (Protestant and Catholic), when the people were united by their desire to beat England at cricket (even if white Australians frowned upon Indigenous players being needed to do it), and when Mary McKillop’s sisters, in the context of a post-gold rush depression, did so well in their charity work that they were reprimanded by their bishop.
The embryonic nation was nurtured by the likes of Henry Parkes who, when a wife died, would just replace her with his latest, younger mistress, and his polar opposite, Alfred Deakin, teetotaller and vegetarian (at least until they impeded his political ambitions), proponent of muscular Christianity, and enthusiastic cyclist. He indulged in the contemporary rage of spiritualism (he took advice from the spirits of Prince Albert and John Bunyan, the latter encouraging Deakin to pen an updated and ultimately dreadful version of Pilgrim’s Progress). (Not everyone was convinced; one prominent minister derided spiritualism while promoting the more sensible ‘science’ of phrenology.)
Deakin introduced a bill to, literally, not put a cart before a horse and fretted about irrigation and immigration. As a secret, anonymous antipodean correspondent for a London newspaper he (bizarrely) criticised his own policies.
Australians (white and male), while they weren’t trying to keep the Chinese out, were trying to keep women from the vote. They ultimately weren’t successful at either. They were more successful at pushing Indigenous Australians to the margins (which were at the country’s centre), something it is hard to find anything to laugh about.
Australians (white and male) were apparently voracious readers in the late 1800s, something that might surprise those of you not reading this review. Australians were very keen on poetry, including from the accident-prone Banjo Patterson and the depressing Henry Lawson, as long as the poetry had horses in it, says Hunt. Later attentions turned to celebrating the bushman (less so his wife, and even less so the original inhabitants). The Man from Snowy River successfully featured both. Sheep were also popular subjects, and Hunt notes that Australia’s national anthem was very nearly a song about a ‘sheep-stealing hobo.’
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Over the last few months, a lot has been said about Afghanistan: Taliban taking over, Afghans trying to escape, while others face the tragedy of staying home. But what do most of us really know about Afghanistan, its culture, history and people?
And the Mountains Echoed is the third novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, published in 2013 following The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), all internationally acclaimed novels framed on the Afghan culture and traditions.
Continuing the familial theme established in his previous novels, And the Mountains Echoed centres on the rapport between siblings. As always, the author navigates through moral complexities and frames siblings relationships from different angles and struggles, but this time the story crosses Afghan borders and take readers to reflect on how our choices resonate through generations.
This fascinating story starts with a fable that a father tells his two children about a poor farmer who struggles to provide for his family and suddenly is forced to give up one of his five children to an evil giant. Eventually, the farmer, deepened in his grief, tracks down the giant and finds his son happy and with no memory of his birth family, and so he decides to leave him where he is. As a gesture of kindness, the giant gives the farmer a potion that makes him forget everything about his son.
As it turns out, the fable is only a reflection of the countless crossroads that Hosseini sows throughout the novel. The main story, from which all the other stories emerge and intertwine, is about ten-year-old Abdullah staying in their father’s small village in Afghanistan, while three-year-old Pari is adopted by a wealthy couple and eventually taken by her half-French mother to live in Paris.
As the story continues, the reader submerges in each of the characters stories, feelings, and journeys, making us wonder if parents can protect their children from a life of suffering, if it is worth splitting a family to protect a child from poverty, or if things would have turned out differently if other choices were made. It’s a reminder that much of the invisible bonds that connect us also make us individuals.
The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson
After giving Allan Karlson (the titular centenarian) his happy ever after in his first book, author Jonas Jonasson found that the world’s events called him back into action. While the writer never intended to write a sequel to his popular novel, The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, real life events made him imagine new scenarios to the extent that he felt the character “speaking” to him.
The second book features much of the same style that made The Hundred Year Old Man an unforgettable title. Where the first novel places Allan in his context across history as something of a Forest Gump figure, the follow up sees his well-earned rest interrupted by current events, such as the election of (now former) US President Donald Trump. What follows is a similar madcap story involving strange characters, coincidences, and history being made before characters’ eyes. Before too long, Allan and his friend Julius Johnsson have left their idyllic surroundings in Bali for an adventure involving a hot air balloon, neo Nazis, North Korea, and eventually world leaders such as Trump and (also now former) German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
What makes this a great summer read is the way that the chapters fly by, with each one being a rewarding experience. Jonasson is a former Swedish journalist whose humour translates well, and who crams his work with historical details and observations that pique readers’ curiosity.
If there is a complaint to be had, it’s that Jonasson’s follow-up effort does not land with the same weight as the first book, and the shift from historical jokes to contemporary politics is a little jarring at first. Despite this, The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred Year Old Man manages to retain much of the charm and irreverence of the first, and makes for a worthwhile follow up. Needless to say, Insights recommends reading the first title beforehand if you haven’t already.