Books for Summertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for summer, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a deckchair in the shade, vivid wildflowers, and a tall glass of something cool

1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita Sackville-West

‘In this unique gardening chronicle Vita Sackville-West weaves together simple, honest accounts of her horticultural experiences throughout the year with exquisite writing and poetic description. Whether singing the praises of sweet-briar, cyclamen, Indian pinks and the Strawberry grape, or giving practical advice on pruning roses, planting bulbs, overcoming frosts and making the most of a small space, her writings on the art of good gardening are both instructive and delightful. Generations of inhabitants have helped shape the English countryside – but it has profoundly shaped us too. It has provoked a huge variety of responses from artists, writers, musicians and people who live and work on the land – as well as those who are travelling through it.English Journeys celebrates this long tradition with a series of twenty books on all aspects of the countryside, from stargazey pie and country churches, to man’s relationship with nature and songs celebrating the patterns of the countryside (as well as ghosts and love-struck soldiers).’

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

‘A raucous comedy that thrusts a quartet of reckless young lovers headfirst into a world of magic and fantasy, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is edited by Stanley Wells with an introduction by Helen Hackett in Penguin Shakespeare. ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends’ Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee Athens to escape the authority of their parents, only to be pursued by Hermia’s betrothed Demetrius, and her friend Helena. Unwittingly, all four find themselves in an enchanted forest where Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, soon take an interest in human affairs, dispensing magical love potions and casting mischievous spells. In this dazzling comedy, confusion ends in harmony, as love is transformed, misplaced, and – ultimately – restored.’

3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

‘A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.’

4. Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

‘The play is a simple love story of a somewhat puritanical Southern girl and an unpuritanical young doctor. Each is basically attracted to the other but because of their divergent attitudes toward life, each over the course of years is driven away from the other. Not until toward the end does the doctor realize that the girl’s high idealism is basically right, and while she is still in love with him, it turns out that neither time nor circumstances will allow the two ultimately to come together.’

5. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. In the almost one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie.’

6. Florida by Lauren Groff

‘The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive.’

7. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

‘An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas. Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults. This new edition sees the return of a European literary gem – fresh, authentic and deeply humane.’

8. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion. Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent autumn and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!


2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.


Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

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Saturday Poem: ‘Life Story’ by Tennessee Williams

After you’ve been to bed together for the first time,
without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance,
the other party very often says to you,
Tell me about yourself, I want to know all about you,
what’s your story? And you think maybe they really and truly do
sincerely want to know your life story, and so you light up
a cigarette and begin to tell it to them, the two of you
lying together in completely relaxed positions
like a pair of rag dolls a bored child dropped on a bed.
You tell them your story, or as much of your story
as time or a fair degree of prudence allows, and they say,
       Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, until the oh
is just an audible breath, and then of course
there’s some interruption. Slow room service comes up
with a bowl of melting ice cubes, or one of you rises to pee
and gaze at himself with the mild astonishment in the bathroom mirror.
And then, the first thing you know, before you’ve had time
to pick up where you left off with your enthralling life story,
they’re telling you their life story, exactly as they’d intended to all along,
and you’re saying, Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, the vowel at last becoming
no more than an audible sigh,
as the elevator, halfway down the corridor and a turn to the left,
draws one last, long, deep breath of exhaustion
and stops breathing forever. Then?
Well, one of you falls asleep
and the other one does likewise with a lighted cigarette in his mouth,
and that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms.

American Literature Month: Flash Reviews from the Archives

A series of flash reviews of American Literature seems a fitting interlude to post amongst the extensive reviews of late.  These have all been posted on the blog over the last couple of years.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner ****
I adore the Deep South as a setting and am wondering why, after finishing this stunning novel, I’ve not read any of Faulkner’s work before.  I adored the differing perspectives throughout, and the way in which each and every one of them was so marvellously distinct.  The story is such an absorbing one, and I love the idea of it – a family waiting for and commenting upon the death of one of their members.  Faulkner’s differing prose techniques in use in As I Lay Dying are wonderful, and show that as a writer, he is incredibly skilled.  Terribly sad on the whole and very cleverly constructed.

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Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann ***
I have read some absolutely marvellous reviews of this novel, and couldn’t wait to begin it.  The prologue of Let The Great World Spin is visually stunning and well thought out.  If only the rest of the book had been the same!  I enjoyed the author’s writing on the whole – some of his descriptions, for example, are sumptuous – but my stumbling block came with the characters.  They were interesting enough on the whole, but they were all so broken, often by alcohol and drugs.  Because of this, no distinct characters stood out for me, and I found it difficult to empathise with any of them in consequence.  An interesting novel, but a little disappointing by all accounts.

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Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan ****
Summer days warrant these witty, fun reads for me.  The books which Cohn and Levithan write are not your usual teen fare.  Rather than being fluffy, simply written and overly predictable (sorry, Sara Dessen, but I’m looking at you), their tales are smart, well constructed, intelligent in their prose and rather unique in terms of the cast of characters they create.  Yes, I suppose that there was an element of predictability here with regard to the ending, but the entire story was so well wrought that it really didn’t matter.  The characters are all marvellous, with perhaps the exclusion of Naomi, whom I found to be an incredibly difficult protagonist to get along with.  I loved the way in which Cohn and Levithan tackled serious issues – the rocky road of teen friendships, homosexuality, trying desperately to conform with peers, and so on.  Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List is a great book, and one which I struggled to put down.

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Children on Their Birthdays by Truman Capote *****
As with the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I got straight into these stories from the outset. I love the stunning sense of place which Capote never fails to create, and his characters are both marvellously and deftly constructed. His writing is just perfect. The tales in Children on Their Birthdays are short, but boy, are they powerful and thought provoking.

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A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams *****
Williams portrays relationships, even the most complicated, in a masterful manner. I love the way in which he writes. His characterisation is second to none, and he gives one so much to admire in each scene, each act. The characters were all fundamentally troubled souls, each imperfect in his or her own way, but they worked so well as a cast, and Blanche Du Bois is eternally endearing. Williams’ dialogue is pitch perfect. An absolutely marvellous, perceptive, strong and unforgettable play, and one which I’m now longing to see performed.

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Classics Club #20: ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ by Tennessee Williams ****

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I adore Tennesee Williams’ plays.  I was utterly captivated by A Streetcar Named Desire and Sweet Bird of Youth, and loved studying Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – my first foray into his work – at school.  A prolific playwright, I was thrilled to find that there were many of Williams’ works which I had not read, and decided to add the randomly chosen Suddenly Last Summer to my Classics Club list accordingly.

In 1958, Suddenly Last Summer was first presented at the York Theater in New York City along with Something Unspoken, under the collective title of Garden District.  The play in question here is relatively short, and contains just seven characters, two of whom hover on the periphery throughout.

Mrs Venable, one of the play’s protagonists, begins by speaking of her late son: ‘it still shocks me a little… to realize that Sebastian Venable the poet is still unknown outside of a small coterie of friends, including his mother’.  Much of the play then circles around her meeting with her niece, Catharine, whom she believes is responsible for his death.  When questioned by Doctor Sugar about whether such a meeting is a good idea, Mrs Venable says: ‘I won’t collapse!  She’ll collapse!  I mean her lies will collapse – not my truth – not the truth…’.  She goes on to say: ‘I had to make it clear to you that the world lost a great deal too when I lost my son last summer’.

As ever, when I began to read, I was struck immediately by Williams’ in-depth stage directions and settings.  Here, they begin: ‘The set may be as unrealistic as the decor of a dramatic ballet.  It represents part of a mansion of Victorian Gothic style in the Garden District of New Orleans on a late afternoon, between late summer and early fall.  The interior is blended with a fantastic garden which is more like a tropical jungle…  There are massive tree-flowers that suggest organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood…’.  The same masterful descriptions run to the initial introductions of his characters, too.  The first sight which we have of Mrs Venable, for example, is this: ‘A lady enters with the assistance of a silver-knobbed cane.  She has light orange or pink hair and wears a lavender lace dress, and over her withered bosom is pinned a starfish of diamonds’.  I love the way in which Williams makes good use of the senses to set scenes and build characters, and the original descriptions which he builds in – ‘the narrow beach, the color of caviar’, ‘each day we would – carve out each day of our lives like a piece of sculpture’, and the ‘quick, dancelike movement’ of Catharine smoking a cigarette.

One of my favourite elements of the play was the way in which, even though Sebastian has died, he is still ever-present; he is spoken about so often, and is such an intrinsic part of the plot, that it is as though he is there throughout proceedings.  The characters have such depth to them, even those who only appear in partial scenes or situations.  Williams has encompassed so many themes which come to the surface throughout, from madness, instability, and the veils of lies which have been drawn, to greed, loneliness, and the pain which can be wrought by knowledge.

Suddenly Last Summer held my interest from start to finish.  It is taut, clever and intriguing, and its vivid darkness particularly has been so well controlled.  As a character study alone, it is wonderful; as a psychological work, incredibly believable.  Suddenly Last Summer has been marvellously plotted, and I imagine that it would be fascinating to watch on the stage.

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Poetry: ‘In the Winter of Cities’ by Tennessee Williams ****

‘In the Winter of Cities’ is a selection of some of Tennessee Williams’ poetry. Since I was unaware of his having written any poetry whatsoever, I was delighted and really excited when I saw this book in my University library. It seems to be a really hard to find book, so I’m glad I had the chance to read it. In_The_Winter_Of_Cities_300_468

First of all, I was initially attracted by the title of this collection. Since I adore winter and wintry things, I mentally prepared myself to love this book. However, most of the poems included here have nothing to do with the season. The only connection with the title I could think of was the ominous and depressing atmosphere that is very often associated with wintertime. But this doesn’t mean the poems are less beautiful or enjoyable at all.

Most of the poems, thus, are quite sad and harrowing and the atmosphere they create in the reader’s mind is definitely bleak and daunting. What I really liked about these poems was that they didn’t resemble one another. There wasn’t a consistent pattern of rhyming, format or length. Others rhymed, but others didn’t. Some were very short, occupying half a page and some were really long and even organized in chapters that extended to several pages. Some were composed according to the conventional norms of poetry, while others resembled more the form of prose and that, I think, helped in keeping the interest of the reader since there was this interesting exchange from one form to the other and you never knew what would come next.

I also like the fact that Williams had dedicated some of these poems to some people I presume he was close to. So, throughout the collection we see poems like “The Jockeys at Hialeah” with the note underneath For J., “Which is my little boy?” for Carson McCullers, “A Wreath for Alexandra Molostova” for Maria Brit-Neva, and “The Eyes” for Oliver. I really enjoy discovering more things about the authors I like (I admit I know close to nothing about Tennessee Williams but I will tend to that as soon as possible), and dedications to specific people in their lives is such a precious indication for the people surrounding the author and food for thought or research about the relationships between them. It made me wonder who J. or Oliver might have been and discover that Williams was in fact acquainted with Carson McCullers, a fact which I was unaware of.

The lyricism and the images created in these poems are so vivid and Williams definitely managed to make the reader feel the exact desperate emotions he describes in some of his poems. Some of my favourites were “Lady Anemone”, “Covenant”, “Life Story” (what an unexpected ending to this one!), “The Soft City” and “Pulse”. Despite most of these poems being utterly depressing, I would love to read them again some day and if I am lucky enough, add a copy of this book to my collection as well.


Sunday Snapshot: Plays

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Williams portrays relationships, even the most complicated, in a masterful manner. I love the way in which he writes. His characterisation is second to none, and he gives one so much to admire in each scene, each act. The characters were all fundamentally troubled souls, each imperfect in his or her own way, but they worked so well as a cast, and Blanche Du Bois is eternally endearing. Williams’ dialogue is pitch perfect. An absolutely marvellous, perceptive, strong and unforgettable play, and one which I’m now longing to see performed.

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
I have rather a mixed bag of comments here. The prose of the narrators is absolutely gorgeous. The descriptions throughout drip with opulent words, and Thomas creates imagery so deftly. The language which they use is so rich. I love the way in which the scene is set. The use of the narrators and how they hand over the speech to one another is rather clever, and I feel that this would be stunning on the stage. You can tell throughout that words are Thomas’ forte. I love the poetic detail which creeps in. The use of long and short sentences was balanced perfectly, and I liked the way in which the little vignettes and asides were sewn together, and the separate stories which were woven through. I also loved the way in which the audience was addressed personally, as though we were a character. I liked the narration far more than the conversations between characters. They often felt dull and flat in comparison. This is the main issue I had with the play. It seemed imbalanced in consequence, and inconsistent too.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
I’m over halfway through my 2013 Shakespeare challenge, a fact which at once makes me both sad and jubilant. One of my favourite elements of his plays is the notion of disguise and mistaken identities. Much Ado About Nothing, happily, has both. It is not my favourite Shakespearean work, and the characters will not stay with me in the same way as Titania and Titus Andronicus, for example, but I must admit that I cheered inwardly when I realised that some of the prose here has been used in Mumford & Sons’ lyrics. Much Ado About Nothing is definitely a great play on the whole, and I imagine that it would transfer well to the stage.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
There are such fun elements to this story. It’s not one which I was overly familiar with before, but I’m so glad I’ve read it! I must say that my Italian isn’t quite good enough to be able to translate a lot of the phrases, but I got the definite jist of it as the play progressed. Some of the prose was incredibly amusing, and other parts were just beautiful. It’s a play which I’d love to see performed.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
I love the way in which all of Shakespeare’s plays have such a wealth of settings. This takes place in the late Roman Empire, and the settings and characters are crafted beautifully. This play shocked audiences right up to the Second World War for its grotesque storylines, but it is so good! I loved the story, prose and rhythm, and this definitely ranks as one of my favourite Shakespeare plays to date.