Summer Books 2021: critics’ picks

Roula Khalaf

FT editor

There are several superb books to recommend to readers this summer, including John Preston’s Fall, the fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Robert Maxwell, and The World for Sale, in which Javier Blas and Jack Farchy tell the captivating stories of the powerful commodity traders and mystery actors of markets and geopolitics. My top pick is a story that everyone should read as we emerge from the devastation of the Coronavirus. Michael Lewis’ Premonition is the story of a group of devoted American scientists and medical professionals who spent years preparing for a Covid-like pandemic, only to be frustrated at every turn by politicians and bureaucrats. It is vintage Lewis, terrifically engaging and chillingly damning of the failure of institutions. Right now I’m reading Leila Slimani’s Le pays des autres, the vivid, multifaceted start of a trilogy of the post-1945 era by the Franco-Moroccan author that will be published in English in August as The Country of Others

Frederick Studemann

FT literary editor

With travel still off the agenda, many of us have to do our exploration closer to home. In Notes from Deep Time Helen Gordon invites us to look at the worlds beneath our feet, taking us back through billions of years as Earth was created, shaped and shifted — literally the tropical beaches beneath the pavements. Returning to more recent times, I much enjoyed Alaa al-Aswany’s The Republic of False Truths a compelling account of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, with all its smashed hopes and cynical repression. A powerful reminder of why fiction is often the best way to convey reality. Similarly, Sergei Lebedev’s Untraceable set within a world of poisoned dissidents, conflicted morality and Kremlin power politics is a sinister thriller that lingers. Like many FT readers, lockdown has driven me to explore the world of audiobooks, catching up with some gems including Jonathan Keeble’s reading of Danial Kehlmann’s brilliant Tyll. A wonderfully playful mix of fact, fiction and ideas set against the backdrop of the horror and turmoil of the Thirty Years war. A great listen.

Alec Russell

FT Weekend editor

I have read more enduring books this year than in any single year I can recall and yet one easily stands out: The Passenger. Its protagonist is a German Jewish businessman who criss-crosses his homeland on trains in first bewilderment and then terror in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. It is a stunning reflection on the feebleness of humanity, an agonising charting of the speed with which decency can implode, a thriller, a searing insight into Nazi Germany. The author, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, a 23-year-old German Jew, wrote it at vertiginous speed in exile in 1938. His fate and the tale of the discovery of the manuscript two years ago are remarkable stories in their own right. His novel has been cited alongside Hans Fallada’s — deservedly so.

Camilla Cavendish

FT contributing editor

In Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Niall Ferguson provides a rollicking ride through disasters from the eruption of Vesuvius to the forthcoming Cold War ll. Still, despite the litany of tragedies described, I found this strangely uplifting. Ferguson adopts Amartya Sen’s legendary analysis that famines are generally man-made, not natural — think of Stalin’s collectivisation policy — and extends the argument to pandemics. Plagues are natural, but the US responded far more effectively to Asian flu in 1957, in his view, than to Covid-19. He lambasts bureaucratic failures and offers musings on everything from death to sci-fi. Magisterial.

Simon Schama

FT contributing editor

If you don’t have time or patience for non-fiction that just functions as communication; the plod of lead-booted platitudes; if you’re thirsty instead for language that performs poetically, philosophically, visually, musically, then the writer for you (and certainly for me) is Philip Hoare whose Albert and the Whale, is pretty much a masterpiece, but also for your summery pleasure, a riot, a meditation, an illumination and most definitely for reasons that will be apparent when you live inside its pages, a day at the beach. Ostensibly about Dürer, drawings of the hare, the wing of the blue roller, and the stunning watercolour of the Great Piece of Turf, Hoare also communes with, inter alia, Erwin Panofsky, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden and not least himself: swimming, but never drowned, in the tidal flow of his free associations and learned analogies. Oh yes, you also get cetaceans in all their thrilling, profound and prophetic immensity.

Enuma Okoro

FT Life & Arts columnist

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, Whereabouts, written in her adopted Italian language, and self-translated into English, she remains the storyteller in whose hands we can always expect to find the sacredness of the ordinary and the grace of the mundane constantly unveiled. We follow the meditative meanderings of a nameless woman paying attention to her life. As she observes the people in it, as she reflects on her thoughts, as she moves through the doors, up the stairs, along the corridors and down the streets of her corner of the world, we are reminded of how our own lives are writ with little narratives that run the gamut of the human condition.

Ben Okri


In At Night All Blood is Black David Diop deploys the griot storytelling tradition to tell the gruesome story of Africans in the first world war. Diop reverses a narrative imperative giving rise to emotions and realities that would have been smothered in any other telling, revealing that the mode of the telling is the mode of the experiencing. A vital decolonisation of the narrative tyranny of the Great war.

Nilanjana Roy

FT columnist

I’ve been burnt too often by the “book everyone’s talking about”, so I approached Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl with scepticism — The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out, really? The novel starts as office drama — Nella, 26, is thrilled when Hazel joins Wagner Books, hoping to make friends with the “other black girl” in a white liberal Manhattan publishing firm — but dives into bolder, grimmer terrain. Harris, who worked at Penguin Random House, delivers a sizzling thriller, acidly funny in its send-up of racism in publishing and the dutiful emptiness of diversity town halls, and takes it close to horror in this cautionary tale of a naive woman who wanders too trustingly into the woods of friendship. The Other Black Girl will make you laugh till you cry; my perfect summer read.

Tim Harford

FT columnist

Whether we are shoring up our own arguments or shooting down those of our foes, our metaphors betray the way we defend our beliefs like soldiers, says Julia Galef in The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. In a sharp and original book, she argues for a better metaphor: we should be like scouts, trying to map out and clarify an uncertain world. And she makes a thoughtful case for why the scout mindset not only helps us be right, but helps us be happy.

Tell us what you think

What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below

Rana Foroohar

FT Global Business Columnist

In All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, Harvard professor Tiya Miles brings a remarkable kind of scholarship to a rip-your-heart-out tale of a simple cotton sack that tells the story of a people. The words embroidered on it are their own kind of art:

My great grandmother Rose
Mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
She was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
It held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my Love always
She never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Ruth Middleton

If you want a window into what it has meant to be black in America for two centuries, read this.

Gillian Tett


If you want one book that not only gives you powerful insight into why and how racism is such a scourge in America today, but also lays out a way to think about this in a more positive — even optimistic — sense for the future, Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us should be required reading. Although she focuses on the African-American community and Black Lives Matter messages, McGhee’s ideas can be transplanted anywhere. Better still, read this with Isabel Wilkinson’s magisterial Caste, to get a powerful lens on an issue that now confronts (almost) everyone in business and finance today.

Susie Boyt

Novelist and FT contributor

I loved Helen Garner’s comradely Yellow Notebook, volume one of her diaries, which contains casual observations of the highest calibre, alongside recurring threads of a marriage dissolving painfully, fierce mother-daughter love, new-suitor auditions, professional triumphs and disasters: “‘It pains me to knock this back . . . It’s you at your best”. Acute readings of literary works dovetail with acute readings of life, all underwritten by a brand of creative zeal, rigorous and stimulating, often high-spirited, sometimes spiteful. She knows how to live, admiring a dying man’s pyjamas or making calico cushion covers after drinking three glasses of Chablis, just to prove she isn’t drunk.

Jemima Kelly

FT Alphaville reporter

My summer reading routine usually consists of lugging around hefty tomes whose pages become bleached and crumpled by the sun over the weeks it takes me to get through them. When the good weather finally came this year, I felt inclined to reach for something a little lighter. Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed was just the thing — a moving, poignant, but also hilarious, erotic and delightfully eccentric tale of a food-obsessed young non-practising Jewish woman with a fat-shaming mother who falls for a much larger Orthodox woman she meets at a frozen yoghurt parlour. A book I devoured as rapidly and enthusiastically as the protagonist devours rainbow sprinkles.

Summer Books 2021

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Wednesday: History by Tony Barber
Thursday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Friday: Fiction by Laura Battle
Saturday: Critics’ choice

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