There are so many ways to ask the same question.
Beach or mountain?
Rain or sun?
Coffee or tea?
Read or jog?
My answer for each one is the same: cozy. What I mean is that, while I usually choose mountain over beach, if given a choice between climbing a fourteener and sitting in a beach chair with a novel, I will change my answer. Beach, all the way.
When I say that the books I’m recommending today are Beach Reads, I may not mean what you think I mean. They are not all light and fluffy. They are not summer-themed. But if the summer is the one season when we collectively give ourselves permission to read novels during the middle of the day, then here are three great books to feed your summertime fiction obsession.
A God in Ruins: A Novel (Todd Family) is the latest book by Kate Atkinson. Not exactly a sequel, it is the companion novel to her last book Life After Life: A Novel. I wrote about that incredible book here. I do think it makes the most sense to read the books in order, but if the premise of the first is unappealing you can read A God in Ruins on its own. The characters will be new and unfamiliar to you, but Atkinson is a master with her characters. A few sentences is all she needs to reveal the depths of their souls.
And make you laugh out loud. Because Atkinson has a sharp and wicked sense of humor.
Atkinson’s humor is especially surprising given her subject matter. While Life After Life focused on Ursula Todd’s harrowing experience of the Blitz, A God in Ruins narrates the life of her beloved baby brother, Teddy, who was a pilot dropping bombs on Germany during the war.
Given the odds, Teddy should not have survived the war, but Atkinson gives him a fictional life in which we are allowed to discover just how important one life can be. In big ways (flying large bombs) and in small (choosing kindness again and again).
Atkinson’s narrative technique is unorthodox. She moves backward and forward in time. She tells her stories in snatches of thoughts in each character’s head. And the result, incredibly, is a seamless narrative that keeps you turning pages. I honestly don’t know how she does it.
Another master novelist is Kazuo Ishiguro. His books The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are favorites of mine. His latest book, The Buried Giant: A novel, explores one of the most important questions for our world: how do we achieve peace after war and national trauma?
The book explores this question at the most intimate level as it follows an elderly married couple on a fairy tale-like quest. But it also asks the question in bigger ways as it explores the fractured relationship between two national communities that were only recently at war.
The surprising but very effective way in which Ishiguro tackles these difficult questions is by setting his book in the legendary, far-distant past. The Buried Giant is set in an England where ogres and dragons still roam. An England where Saxon and Briton have achieved a too-fragile accord. An England where the achievements of the late King Arthur are still felt in the land.
How do we mend personal relationships after betrayal and how do we forgive and find peace following national trauma? These are enormous questions and enormously important, but Ishiguro’s story is simple, spare, and elegant. It is slow and measured and beautiful.
It seems to use only the barest bones of our collective storytelling traditions. The characters are ones we have always known (wife, husband, warrior, boy) and the plot is just as familiar (a journey of discovery, a quest to destroy a dragon). But the result is a novel that is fresh and new and very much written for our world today.
Ready for something a little less intense? If you are a mystery lover you will likely already have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Pollifax, the most unexpected CIA agent of all time. Widowed with grown children, Mrs. Pollifax has grown a little bored of her garden club and hospital volunteer work and so takes one last stab at a lifelong dream: she wants to be a spy.
Dorothy Gilman’s Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is the first in a delightful series. In a few places I almost find these book too delightful, but then Mrs. Pollifax says or thinks something so hilariously understated that I want to write it down and remember it forever.
These books are as light and frothy as any beach read but don’t be deceived. There is more to Mrs. Pollifax than meets the eye, and there is more to these books. These fun, funny, adventurous stories rest on a very well written and well plotted foundation.
Tell me, do you keep a summer reading list? I’d love to hear what you plan to read this summer.
No doubt most of you are not sitting under a foot of snow as we are here at Maplehurst, but early March days are still ideal reading days.
I’m reading mostly gardening books, which, I suppose, must mean that I am a very hopeful person. Or else that I am practiced in denial.
I have a stack of gardening books currently checked out from my library, including the coffee-table treasury Visions of Paradise by photographer Marina Schinz. It begins with these words:
To create a garden is to search for a better world. In our effort to improve on nature, we are guided by a vision of paradise. … This hope for the future is at the heart of all gardening.
I think this is true of gardening, but my late-winter prayer is that these words would be true in every area of my life. That my reading, my loving, my working – everything – be motivated by hope for the future.
The following post contains affiliate links. You can find all my book recommendations here.
My favorite book in that stack of gardening books is The Essential Earthman: Henry Mitchell on Gardening.
Henry Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post. This posthumous collection has been called “one of the great American gardening books,” and I absolutely agree. This is wonderful reading: informative, practical, hilarious, witty. In its own subtle way, it is brilliant.
Its appeal for gardeners is obvious, but as I read I decided the book was worthy of an even broader audience. Almost all of the pieces are wonderful examples of what newspaper opinion writing can be.
We can all learn something from Henry Mitchell. We might learn about planting peonies or which varieties of daffodil are the most glorious. Or, we might learn the subtle art of communicating one’s own strong opinions in the most disarming and entertaining way.
Dept. of Speculation (Vintage Contemporaries) by Jenny Offill is not like any other novel you have read. I am sure of that. It is more like one of those works of art that looks, from a distance, like a hyper-realist portrait but is, upon closer examination, found to be made up entirely of buttons or bottle caps.
From a distance, this is the story of a marriage that is falling apart. Now, I know that sounds entirely too depressing for late-winter, but the full arc of the story is hopeful and beautiful.
But close up? This is a strange collection of thoughts and facts and memories. I tend not to like experiments in fiction, James Joyce excepted, of course. But when an experiment works, it really, really works. And this one works.
There is nothing self-indulgent about Offill’s writing. Instead, she has found a new way to tell a familiar story, and the result is astonishing.
I sometimes postpone writing these book recommendation posts because I worry that I haven’t read enough new, great books. I forget that the premise, when I began, was simply to tell you about the books on my shelves. Or, more accurately, the books taken off the shelves and left lying near beds and armchairs.
We’ve loved Mary Ann Hoberman’s picture book The Seven Silly Eaters for years, but this book has recently come off the shelf for round after round of reading. Elsa loves it, but my nearly-six and nearly-nine-year-old boys come like moths to a flame when they hear me reading it.
We are big fans of other Hoberman books, especially A House Is a House for Me and The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems, but The Seven Silly Eaters is special. It’s the rhyming story of a tired mother with seven picky-eaters for children, but, like all great picture books, it offers so much more. Every illustration tells a story of its own, and, I think, every family will find something of themselves in its pages.
Do you think your child is too old for picture books? Do you think you are too old for picture books? Then I recommend The Seven Silly Eaters as a very necessary corrective.
Happy reading, friends.
I tend not to read the books everyone else is reading. At least, I don’t read them while they are being talked about. Years after the fact, I might grab an “Oprah’s Pick” or a “Now a Major Motion Picture” paperback at the thrift store. Usually, I discover that everyone else was on to something good.
Still, this contrary streak persists.
I may not read the cocktail-party-conversation books, but I do read the The Big Conversation classics.
Of those, I re-read an even smaller selection.
Here are a few classics you may have missed. These aren’t the books to check off some must-read list (though if I had to recommend one of that sort, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, just fyi).
These are the books to read and read again.
These are books like old friends and crocheted afghans and steamy cups of tea.
First, there is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. No doubt Oprah’s Victorian equivalent would have splashed her name all over the cover of this page-turner. Here is mystery, crime, intrigue, and atmosphere like only the English Victorians knew how to do.
My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody. – Wilkie Collins
For those of you whose appetites for emotional dramas set during the French Revolution have recently been wetted, I recommend A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
With all of the narrative padding that makes nineteenth-century fiction so maddening for some and so enjoyable for others, this is my favorite Dickens. That admission probably doesn’t say much about my critical prowess, but, remember, these are the classics we want to read, not the ones we must.
Not only do we have the French Revolution and a famous opening line, but, in hero Sydney Carton, we have a Christ-figure par excellence.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. – Charles Dickens
Last, but, whoa-nelly, not least (this one’s a doorstop, folks), is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. If you want to impress people on the subway, el, or metro, then Eliot is your girl. But don’t let the length discourage you. The long length is one of my favorite things about this book. This is the kind of book that is most enjoyable while there are still lots of pages to go. It’s a sad day when the last page is turned and you must leave Eliot’s masterfully created world and the wonderful characters who populate it.
Middlemarch is Serious Victorian Literature, and so it is also Serious Reading Fun. I mean, there are so many words! so many characters! so many hyper-realist details! Open to the first page, read slowly, and do not worry about when you will reach the end. This one is all about the journey (and Eliot’s is a very impressive journey). Enjoy.
It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view. – George Eliot
P.S. I googled Sydney Carton’s name to check the spelling and discovered that A Tale of Two Cities was once an Oprah Book Club Pick. My mind is blown. I had no idea. How did I ever miss a televised interview with Charles Dickens? Someone, please tell me, did he jump on the sofa?
I think this is the first Friday evening when I have not been excited to sit down and give you another peak at my bookshelves. The reason? I’m in the middle of a new book, and I would really rather be reading.
My internet connection was out all day, and I was secretly thrilled. It meant I felt a little less guilty propping the baby in her bouncy seat and getting back to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.
However, since I have one of you to thank for this book recommendation, and I want to keep the good times rolling, here are three more books for your reading pleasure.
Today, I’m giving you characters.
When I read novels what I want more than anything – more than a great plot or beautiful language – is character. I want human beings who are so fully realized, so perfectly flawed yet sympathetic, that I struggle to believe they have been created out of nothing more than the alphabet.
Cassandra Mortmain is a marvel of a narrator. She is the wonderfully awkward heroine of Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. The incredible thing about this novel is that the narrator, who hovers somewhere between childhood and adulthood, does not know herself and yet she fully reveals herself to us. We have only her words, but we know things she is only slowly discovering.
This novel is sweet, funny, and over-the-top in so many good ways. We have a crumbling English castle, first love, eccentrics around every corner, and poverty that is a little worse than genteel. Cassandra, like the story she tells, is a gem.
And no bathroom on earth will will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate. – Dodie Smith
Next, I give you a character who is much darker and more mysterious. He is a young, Irish police detective, and he is the narrator of In the Woods by Tana French.
French writes what some have called “literary mystery thrillers.” Literary is a rather inadequate word, but what it should tell you is that French is an incredible writer. In particular, she has a gift for characters.
Although the plot will keep you turning pages late at night (my life pretty much comes to a standstill whenever French publishes a new book), if you value plot (especially those of the neat and tidy variety) you may be disappointed.
I think I love French’s books because, though they are atmospheric and wildly creative, I find them to be more honest than most mysteries. French gives us compelling characters and page-turning stories, but she does not pretend that all mysteries can be solved, that all questions can be answered, or that the past can always be known.
What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie. – Tana French
I am always amazed that one small island can produce so many gifted writers. Here is another: the Irish writer Colm Toibin. Brooklyn: A Novel is told by Eilis Lacey. She is a young woman who has grown up in a small Irish town just after the second world war. Sponsored by a priest, Lacey leaves her family and goes, alone, to make a new life in America.
This is a quiet book. Beginning it, you may find it too easy to put it down and forget to pick it up again. Don’t do this: you are in the hands of a master. Turning pages you will begin to care for Eilis, you will see the world through her naive but curious eyes, and you will know, having turned the last page, that you have been richly rewarded.
‘She has gone back to Brooklyn,’ her mother would say. – Colm Toibin
Tell me, who are the characters you especially love?
You can find earlier recommendations here: week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, week six, week seven, and week eight.