Summer Reading17 July 2014
The getaway season is upon us, and with it the chance to get lost in a book. Here some of our regular reviewers choose the reads they’ll be packing for their holiday entertainment and enlightenment
Allan Massie is a much underrated Scottish novelist, known not least for his historical novels about Roman emperors. He has also written very well about varying notions of patriotism in Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century. He revisits these themes in three detective stories about Bordeaux at the beginning of the Second World War, the first of which is Death in Bordeaux (Quartet, £12; Tablet price £10.80). Not simply thrillers but excellent novels – and the good news is that there is a fourth to come.
Summer holidays allow time to tackle those long slow reads which resist the snatched half-hours of normal leisure. Three weeks in deepest Suffolk should give me time to savour the vivid and muscular language of George Chapman’s Iliad and Odyssey, after four centuries still by far the best English version of Homer’s tremendous epics, and available almost free on Kindle.
A 13-year-old boy’s passion for a tiny Dutch masterpiece lands him in all sorts of trouble. Theft, fraud, drugs and violence follow the boy into adulthood over 800 pages of delicious storytelling. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Abacus, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10) makes a perfect summer read – and don’t be put off by the doldrums in Las Vegas: they’re all part of a carefully laid plot.
I would choose one of Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful four last novels. My favourite is The Beginning of Spring (Fourth Estate, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10), about an English family living in Moscow just before the First World War, when this was not as unusual as it sounds. Frank is an unlikely hero and the novel is near-perfect. Extraordinary.
Whitehall, 1632: Inigo Jones creates a masque of “motion pictures”, fragments of Bowie’s “Starman” crackle across the airwaves from the future, and beauty, then as now, comes at a terrible cost. Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape, £14.99; Tablet price £13.50) whisks together Van Dyck’s deathbed portrait of Lady Venetia Stanley, Evelyn’s reference to a beauty treatment called “viper wine”, and Eyre’s own experience interviewing celebrities to create a refreshing new approach to the historical novel.
Anyone, anywhere, could respectably hide behind The Stories by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown, £20; Tablet price £18) but somewhere within these 28 short fictions she’s likely to have found you and yours. Illuminating, unshowy and often funny, they bear comparison with those by Chekhov, Trevor and Munro and offer limitless, suitcase-friendly rereading.
What better companion for a Tablet-reading traveller than the “Prayerbook for Catholic Christians” edited by Eamon Duffy, The Heart in Pilgrimage (Bloomsbury, £20; Tablet price £18). Liturgical, devotional and contemplative traditions, Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican, with particular strengths in the Tudor and Stuart periods and in the riches of Irish Christianity, all drawn together into a thoroughly practical vade mecum – with lots of glorious litanies for long waits in airports too.
Albert Camus’ astonishing Algerian Chronicles (Belknap Press, £16.95; Tablet price £15.30) published in the strife-torn France of 1958, has never before been translated. Its even-handedness appalled both Left and Right in France, but the book, beautifully translated by Arthur Goldhammer and introduced by Alice Kaplan, has a probity and an eloquence that make it an enthralling read as the post-colonial Muslim world further unravels around us.
The Golden Fleece (Carcanet, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30), a collection of essays, talks and reviews by Muriel Spark is full of good things, a lucky bag of reflections on Italy, cats, religion and literature. How Not to Be Wrong is also good for dipping in and out of: sprightly essays on the uses of maths for non-mathematicians by Jordan Ellenberg (Allen Lane, £20; Tablet price £18).
Brideshead Revisited (Penguin, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10), Evelyn Waugh’s study of the decay of the House of Flyte, remains his best and most substantial novel, with its echoes of King Lear and back references to his two other novels of marital collapse and moral decay, Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust. Try to find the original, full-strength, unexpurgated 1945 edition, in which many telling passages had not yet been expunged.
It’s 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. It can seem a long time ago, or only yesterday. What really went on? In What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press, £15.95; Tablet price £14.40), John W. O’Malley, historian and theologian, has the story. He unfolds the events, presents the main actors, describes the issues, assesses the results. Serious, but not heavy reading. Just right for a long summer’s evening.
The unsettling Longbourn by Jo Baker (Black Swan, £7.99; Tablet price £7.20) is the servants’ take on the world of Pride and Prejudice, full of icy morning pumps, pig manure, scouring, scrubbing and chilblains. You hardly notice the Bennets: this deals with the reality of lovers in wartime, and the harsh rules governing those untrained soldiers who saved us from Napoleon.
Philip Short’s Mitterrand: a study in ambiguity (Bodley Head, £30; Tablet price £27) is a tour de force on one of the most fascinating politicians/ statesmen of the twentieth century. And John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (Penguin, £7.99; Tablet price £7.20) shows that the great spy novelist of the Cold War years is up to the minute in the modern world of paranoid surveillance.
If you are looking forward to spending part of the summer in the countryside, at sea or just in the garden, I recommend Places of Enchantment: meeting God in landscapes by Graham B. Usher (SPCK, £10.99; Tablet price £9.90). A bit densely written, but it will help you to recognise the presence of God in any or all of them, from the intimacy of the garden to the sublimity of the high mountains.
The letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich, Darling Monster (Chatto & Windus, £25; Tablet price £22.50), deserve a read for her description of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh alone: Greene, she wrote, was “a good man possessed of a devil” while Waugh was “a bad man for whom an angel is struggling”. Fabulous.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Bantam, £9.99; Tablet price £9) tells the parallel stories of the building of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the crimes of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer. Written with the pace of a thriller, and with a cast of characters ranging from the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Walt Disney’s father and from prostitutes to architects, this was a book I did not want to end.
Perfect for dipping into on lazy summer days: Events, Dear Boy, Events: a political diary of Britain 1921-2010 edited by Ruth Winstone (Profile, £9.99; Tablet price £9). The thoughts of Vera Brittain (calling Churchill “Al Capone”), Beatrice Webb and Nella Last are especially priceless. Rich pickings, great reading.
Last year, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s quartet of novels, “The Cazalet Chronicles”, became a quintet. She completed her account of the life and times of the Cazalet family just before her death at the age of 90. The saga began with The Light Years (Pan, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10); start with it this summer and revel in her evocation of England on the eve of the Second World War. Characterisation is her forte, followed by mood, and a deep understanding of how history impacts on the individual. By the end of the fifth volume, All Change (Pan, £7.99; Tablet price £7.20), your only regret is that there’s no sixth.
The always interesting Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series has recently provided The Phoenix and the Mirror (Gollancz, £9.99; Tablet price £9) the first of Avram Davidson’s novels about the poet Virgil in his medieval incarnation as magus, set in an exuberant renascence re-imagining of the Roman Empire, with profuse mythological apparatus and great delight in language. A treat.
For those not overdosed on World Cuppery, The 10 Football Matches that Changed the World … and the One that Didn’t by Jim Murphy (Biteback, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30) is a very readable take on how football can reflect and impact on national politics. The most moving chapter is dedicated to the match that didn’t change the world – played during the Christmas truce of 1914. An intelligent football book.
In 1960 there were three billion of us. According to 10 Billion by Stephen Emmott (Penguin, £6.99; Tablet price £6.30), by 2100 there will 28 billion. This bombshell of a book, which can be read in minutes, spells out the numbers and what Emmott, head of computational research at the Cambridge University, believes are the consequences.
A woman in her late fifties returns to the trendy modern university she attended in the early Seventies, seeking to unravel the truth about a catastrophic student party that haunts her still. In Upstairs at the Party (Virago, £14.99; Tablet price £13.50), Linda Grant takes a long perspective on youthful ideals and mature compromises, and her eye for social history is as sharp as ever.
Readers will know the poems of Herbert. John Drury’s Music at Midnight (Penguin, £9.99; Tablet price £9) begins with “Love (III)”, a poem to recite after receiving Communion, and takes us through the poet’s life placing the poems illuminatingly in context. A loving and learned introduction to the golden age of Anglicanism.
Kevin Maher’s The Fields (Abacus, £7.99; Tablet price £7.20) is a fabulous first novel about Jim, a Dublin altar boy seduced by a wicked priest. But the tide is turning: a good priest rescues Jim, and the story thunders through to an excellent denouement. It is beautifully observed and often very funny indeed.
Harry’s Last Stand, a 200-page squib by 91-year-old Harry Leslie Smith (Icon, 12.99; Tablet price £11.70), sounds unlikely summer reading. But this hymn of wrath against the toxic nexus of money and power in austerity UK from a Bradford pauper’s son, excommunicated from the Catholic church for marrying an “enemy” woman in post-war Germany, is a compelling life-verdict.
In her beautifully written and calming novel Offshore (Fourth Estate, £7.99; Tablet price £7.20), winner of the 1979 Booker Prize, Penelope Fitzgerald described the lives and problems of a motley group of society’s outsiders who owned the Grace and other houseboats moored on Chelsea Reach. Was this boat’s name chosen to underline a kind of redemption experienced by its occupants? Do read and judge for yourselves.
In A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30), Kamila Shamsie transports her readers to another place and time. She contrasts three different empires: the ancient Persians between 515 and 485 BC, the dissolution of the Ottoman state, and the decline of British colonial rule in India. Spanning two continents and two defining events in the early part of the twentieth century, she brilliantly illustrates how war tests loyalties and destroys empires.
England has never had a revolution like those of France and Russia. Our “glorious revolution” of 1688 was the endorsement by the establishment of a foreign usurpation. Only twice has the country came close to a violent upheaval: once during the Gunpowder Plot and once just before the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832. Antonia Fraser, who long ago wrote a lively account of the first drama, now tells the gripping story of the second in Perilous Question (Phoenix, £9.99; Tablet price £9).
You don’t have to be heading there to enjoy Cornwall by Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press, £35; Tablet price £31.50). The first county architectural guide in the series in 1951, it is now gloriously amplified for armchair touring or use on site. The new editor has a sense of place like Betjeman’s.
I was enthralled by Richard Benson’s doorstopper The Valley: 100 years in the life of a family (Bloomsbury, £25; Tablet price £22.50) which looks at the lives of four generations of the author’s family in the mining villages of Yorkshire’s Dearne Valley. Both epic and intimate; I loved and believed in everyone who appeared in it and could hardly bear to say goodbye to them. Honestly, it’s a cracker.
There is a great deal of interest among architectural historians at the moment in writing about buildings in unusual ways. The idea is to attract new readers and enthusiasts. Tom Wilkinson’s Bricks and Mortals (Bloomsbury, £25; Tablet price £22.50) does it beautifully, telling highly enjoyable stories in chapters ranging from the Tower of Babel to a footbridge in Rio de Janeiro.
Have readers discovered Louise Penny’s Quebecois detective Inspector Gamache? Start with the first novel, Still Life (Sphere, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10), and as long as you don’t get irritated with the conceit of a remote Canadian village experiencing more murders per head than Midsomer, you will be much diverted – look forward later in the series to mayhem in a Gilbertine monastery.
In Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge University Press, £23.99; Tablet price £21.60), Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr, two eminent Protestant Old Testament scholars, offer an accessible and instructive reading of the 150 poems that nourish Jewish and Christian liturgical prayer. Clear, concise, and comprehensive, the interpretation of each psalm easily lends itself to study and prayerful meditation.
Simon Scott Plummer
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Abacus, £8.99, Tablet price £8.10) is the quintessential big American novel, part Bildungsroman, part thriller, played out in New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, about the theft of a seventeenth-century Dutch painting following a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum. A deserved winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Summer is a time to dip in and out, best of all to Jane Gardam’s The Stories (Little Brown, £20; Tablet price £18). Sharp, funny, mischievous and often menacing, they grab you by the throat. Gardam’s fiction is always much more than it at first seems. Behind a superficial ordinariness is something extraordinary. Rather like the fiction of another celebrated Jane.
I was nearly put off reading J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (Vintage, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10) by a review that made it sound weird and pretentious. The novel (which has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth) is indeed a little weird, as it’s set in some imaginary time and place, but it’s engaging and thoughtful. The boy’s passion for Don Quixote prompted me to get round to reading the thing at last – which is good deep fun.
Javier Marias’ The Infatuations (Penguin, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10) is just out in paperback. It’s a taut murder novel set in Madrid. Publisher’s assistant Maria breakfasts in the same cafe everyday, where she meets the murder victim and his wife. She gets drawn into their lives with dangerous consequences. The style is intense and cerebral, totally immersive.
A holiday should really be a pilgrimage, and Jesus: a Pilgrimage by James Martin (Harper One, £18.99; Tablet price £17.10) is precisely that. It is a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but also a pilgrimage into Jesus (using the latest scholarship); more importantly it is a pilgrimage into the heart of this engaging author. And, if you listen carefully, it will be part of your own inner pilgrimage this summer.
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