Feature Christopher Bray selects a varied menu of literary delights to pack in your beach bag. Whether you are after laughter, romance or a more challenging read, there is something here for all tastes. Happy reading.
30 great summer holiday reads
Christopher Bray selects a varied menu of literary delights to pack in your beach bag. Whether you are after laughter, romance or a more challenging read, there is something here for all tastes. Happy reading. And how, a wag asked me while I was compiling this list, does summer reading differ from Easter reading or November reading? The answer, I think, is that summer reading, predicated as it is on the concept of relaxation - even holidaying - can paradoxically be a little heavier than the kind of stuff one looks to during work time. So unless you want to work out with it dumb-bell-style, I am not suggesting that David Remnick's 7cm-thick biography of the US president Barack Obama, The Bridge, is ideal for the beach. But if you agree that a vacation is an opportunity for more than just down-time, then Remnick is one of the wisest companions you could take with you.
Not that everything recommended here is aimed at the determinedly autodidactic. There are what Graham Greene would have termed "entertainments" here, too, though - and Greene would have approved - nothing that is merely amusing. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is one of our young century's greatest yarns, though there is plenty to be learnt from it about perhaps the most decisive period in English history, too. John Lanchester's Whoops!, on the contrary, is a deeply researched history of the economic crisis we are still living through. It is also one of the funniest books published this year.
Since many of The National's readers are living away from home, I have recommended both a handful of books dealing with expatriate life and several others that may sketch in a little of the history of our present environs. And to make you feel at home wherever you are, I have included a few old favourites - books so good that even if you've read them before, the summer would not be wasted reading them again. Everything mentioned here is in print and readily available, so there's no excuse for not enjoying yourself. Away you go? OLD FAVOURITES
"It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, midway between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbutton its waistcoat and put its feet up." Thus the fourth sentence of Wodehouse's masterpiece, and I defy anyone not to be already hooked. The plot is the old chestnut about the memoirist set on exposing the wild youths of his now high-and-mighty pals, and their efforts to put a stop to him - though who ever read Wodehouse for plot? Obsessed though he was with cracking a story's structure, his merely mortal readers are content to plash in the playground pool of his prose. Dive in. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: That rare book - indeed rare thing - that has the power to cheer one up
Fowles's first novel (though the second to be published), its story is unsummarisable, but its atmosphere and gloriously defamiliarised sense of place (the Greek island of your dreams), along with its narrative tug and sheer delight in wrongfooting the reader make it the ideal beach read. True, Fowles's Sartrean existential certainties might have been invented to define jejune, but if you can get past the cod philosophising - and anyone reading the book for the first time most certainly will - this is one of the all-time great yarns. I envy anyone about to find themselves tied up in it. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: The only book I know guaranteed to make you feel young again.
Say hello to Tom Ripley, the most lovable sociopath you'll ever meet, cheering him on as he despatches another innocent dullard to an early grave. Tom is an American, but once the first few, plot-detonating pages of The talented Mr Ripley are over, the series follows him around the cultural high spots of post-war Europe, from Renaissance Rome to southern France (where our ever-resourceful hero makes a mint by forging post-impressionist masterpieces), and generally living the high-life he is a master at having affecting been born to. Bluntly, the best psychological thrillers ever written. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To get the transatlantic culture clash of Henry James with loads of murders thrown in.
Or 'How I Lived in a Big House and Found God' according to the late Kingsley Amis. Well, yes, but if you can get past the fawning and the snobbery (they are not that different), you'll find yourself luxuriating in some of the most beautiful sentences in the English language. And that's the point: after six years of war and rationing, Waugh longed more than most for the comforts of peace; since even he couldn't have them, he chose to evoke them in prose instead. Look out, too, for Edward Ryder, the narrator's father, and a contender for the character with the highest percentage of laugh-out-loud lines in all fiction. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because a more sybaritic means of coping with our age of austerity is unimaginable
"The best French novel in the English language," quoth one wag, and also one of the slipperiest accounts of the tensions and temptations of expat life there is. An account of the relations between two couples holidaying in Europe as the first war is about to erupt, this story of doomed love and desperate passions, tumbles out in a higgledy-piggledy chronology from the memory of what gradually emerges as the unreliable narrator. You're never quite sure whom you believe, much less whom you trust - save, of course, for Ford, whose most formally perfect book this is. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because it's easily the most readable of the great modernist novels.
Hemingway's posthumously published sketches of expat life in Twenties Paris, edited and reordered by his grandson, Seán. A few new brief chapters and some tickles to the odd pronoun aside, however, the book remains very much what it always has been - an episodic insight into the aesthetic formation of the 20th century's greatest maker of individual sentences. There is still a little too much macho posturing about the book (one of the new sections is about boxing), but what comes across rather more strongly in this new version is the pain Hemingway felt as his first marriage fell apart. For that insight alone, it's required reading. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To recall the time when you could write all morning at a Parisian café over a single café creme.
Lawrence's autobiographical - for which read not entirely historical - account of the Arab revolt of 1916-1918. Not all the book has subsequently been disproved, though there is no doubt that its enduring fame owe as much to Lawrence's skills as a storyteller as to its purchase on the facts of the matter. Bluntly, Lawrence had a genius for making the horror of twentieth century war look like so much old-fashioned derring-do. Seven Pillars has much to offer the beginner on how the modern Middle East came into being. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because it's marginally more true to fact than David Lean's fatuous movie 'Lawrence of Arabia' LOCAL INTEREST
Though its focus is largely on recent political history, this capacious book is at heart an account of many centuries of Middle Eastern subjugation, iniquity and humiliation at the hands of everyone from the Ottomans to the Italians. Not that Rogan paints the Arabs as passive pawns being pushed about the imperial chessboard. He knows they have often been as corrupt and callous as their Western counterparts, and have many times been the real oppressors of the masses. Nice to report, then, that his inclusion of numerous quotes from women on key historical moments pulls the rug on the semi-conscious stereotype of the subservient Arabian housewife. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because it's the most balanced account of Middle Eastern politics around.
A desire to cross Afghanistan might be thought weird at the best of times, but a desire to do so in the midwinter of 2002, four months on from 9/11, is surely suicidal. Not wanting to be thought remotely sane, Rory Stewart (or Florence of Belgravia as he's known in the Tory party) insists on making the entire journey on foot. "You are our first tourist," a member of the Security Service tells him. "There are three metres of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, this is a war. You will die." Well, he didn't, and this glorious travelogue - so unquestioningly masculine it reads like a Victorian adventure yarn - was the result. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To feel that nothing you've ever done is worthwhile.
The title is misleading. Whatever else it is, this fine book isn't out to prove the existence of God. What it does show is that the rational atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins is premised on a parody vision of religion as axiomatically fundamentalist. Like Wittgenstein, Armstrong believes that the linguistic concept of 'God' is meaningless - yet who could deny the wisdom of what she calls the 'Golden Rule' of all religions: do unto others as you would be done by? A demanding read, but a useful reminder that there is no getting away from our hard-wired sense of wonder. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To start all the dinner party debates you want
Given the indigenous fertility rates of the secular and diversity-tolerant nations, yes is Kaufman's short answer, though even as a liberal utilitarian he pronounces himself untroubled by the prospect. Since he believes that the "maximisation of collective happiness is the proper end of humanity? religion seems more rational than irreligion". Moreover, religion doesn't just grant believers identity and meaning - it might just be the best way of resisting the empty-headed materialism of monopoly capital. Agree or disagree - and I found myself swung this way and that while reading the book - this is powerful, unignorable stuff. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To feel happier about the future? NEW NON-FICTION
As a biography of a painter, Caravaggio makes a fine thriller. The book has more scraps and scrapes (not to mention sex) than Ian Fleming. Here is Caravaggio (who died 400 years ago last month) stabbing a waiter over a plate of artichokes, here he is sword-fighting on a tennis court over just who has rights to one of seicento Rome's comeliest courtesans. No wonder Martin Scorsese tells Graham-Dixon that he gets many of the ideas for his movies from looking at Caravaggio's paintings. It's not all action and intrigue, though. The book offers masterly close readings of Il Maestro's work - without once descending into art-historical duckspeak. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To see some of the most famous paintings in the world with new eyes.
"The symphony," Mahler famously said, "should be like the world: it should contain everything." And so Mahler's do, argues Norman Lebrecht in this spirited book - part biography, part proselytisinghomage - that is marred only by its being melodramatically written in the historic present. The list of recommended recordings is impressively thorough (though Bernstein's 1986 take on the ninth is rather more heartbreaking than Lebrecht allows), but I'm afraid I can't go along with the idea that Mahler has now supplanted Beethoven as our greatest symphonist. The point about music, surely, is that it oughtn't "contain everything" but should know what to leave out. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: The best general introduction to the last of the romantics and first of the modernists.
Nobody's admitted it, but the post-post-war settlement is over. Just as the oil crisis of 1973 called a halt to the Keynesian epoch, so the banking crisis of 2008 brought down the curtain on the Thatcher/Reagan revolution. The end of an era, then - and according to Whoops! the end of an error, too. Even had the financial fallout never happened, argues Lanchester, we couldn't have gone on living as we have. Like James Lovelock, he believes the world wants vengeance for our consumerist ways. Well, maybe. Meanwhile, if you want to understand collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps and tranching - and, more importantly, laugh while doing so - Lanchester is your man. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To be justified in your anger and contempt for our putative great and good.
A whiggish financial history in which all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Capitalism, says Kaletsky, is the great survivor: no matter what gets thrown at it, it not only comes back fighting but is made stronger in the process. Heck, it'll even survive the depredations of its worst enemy - not Marx or Lenin, but former US treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, who by letting Lehman Brothers go hang turned a drama into a crisis and ushered in our present-day chaos. But never fear. Provided interest rates are kept low and the stimulus is kept going, we can all be whiggish once more. Here's hoping? WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because at least while reading it you'll feel good about your pension.
Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is the simple answer, and even if it weren't, what matter it so long as we have the plays and poems? Still, it is good to have Professor Shapiro on hand to take down the arguments of such as Sigmund Freud (Shakespeare was actually a Frenchman called Jacques Pierre); Mark Twain (nothing happened to Shakespeare so how could he dramatise all this stuff?); Enoch Powell (Shakespeare didn't have a genius's face), as well as sundry nineteenth century snobs who believe that a glover's son with not much Latin was just too common to be England's greatest writer. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To demolish those devil's advocates once and for all.
There was nothing inevitable - nor even probable - about Barack's rise to the US Presidency. Nonetheless, New Yorker editor Remnick teases out the hidden logic of his ascent. Obama had ambition, no doubt about it. But how lucky he was to be standing after two terms of likely the worst president of all time. How lucky his lawyerly flexibility and troubled familial need to build consensus allowed him to position himself as both "black enough" and "white enough" to appeal across the board. Is the book too long? Yes. Has it been written too early? Almost certainly. Yet who could deny it's the political biography of the year? WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because history's first drafts are often the most exciting.
The subtitle gives only a taste of the temptations to be found in this collection of thirty years and more of what Schama calls his scribbles. Here is a lusty lap-up of Isaiah Berlin's letters, here a frosty interview with Charlotte Rampling. A paean to Churchill's oratory keeps company with a takedown of Ozzy Osbourne's feel for the English tongue. Sandwiched between two learned demolition jobs on George Dubya Bush comes a wondrously admiring analysis of the cocktail of classicism and redemption that made up then presidential hopeful Obama's on the stump speeches. All this, and the Schama recipe for cheese soufflé, too. Tuck in. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because the ice cream recipes are fabulous, too.
An all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds kind of book. Ridley is adamant that life on an ever more crowded planet of limited resources will simply keep on getting better. Why? Because it always has up to now, that's why. As a confirmed pessimist, I hope Ridley (chairman of Northern Rock when it went bankrupt in 2008, incidentally) is right. But given the iffy parallels he draws between Darwinism and Adam Smith's marketplace, I'm not convinced. Still, this is a bracing read full of intriguing facts and figures and so beautifully written that you won't start carping until you've put it down. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because, you never know, he might be right
The rebuilding of Europe after the collective suicide bids of the two great wars is one of the west's proudest miracles - and its story is told miraculously well in this effortlessly readable panoptic summary of a lifetime of learning. Judt's thesis is simple: post-1945 Europe had to forget the past to redefine its politics and economics, but it had to remember it in order to reshape its culture/s and morals. I wasn't convinced by his suggestion that "the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe". Otherwise, this is a tough book to argue with. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: For the incidental details as well as the grand sweep. NEW FICTION
When young Laura is run over and killed en route to her dance class, her mother Betty vows revenge. But just as we're gearing up for a distaffDeath Wish, Doughty flashes back to Betty's own youth and the early, bedroom-crazy days of her failed relationship with Laura's father, David. Then the hate mail starts turning up? It would be unfair to give any more away. Sufficient to say thatWhatever You Love, which might have been written in order to be filmed for TV, ought to be the bestseller creative writing tutor Doughty has said she's aiming for. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because the TV version is bound to ignore the scalpel-blade subtleties of Doughty's marital probings .
A TudorGodfather, with Thomas Cromwell in the Al Pacino role - as the mover and shaker behind the throne of the don of dons, Henry VIII. The book moves as seamlessly through Cromwell's life and times as he contrived to do through a court his brutish, humble background ought to have precluded him from - suggesting ever so subtly that he was the age's real man for all seasons. It's a bold historical novelist who writes in the present tense, but Mantel not only gets away with it - she uses it to make us see familiar characters and events in a wholly new light. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because everyone else already has!
Rendell's sixtieth novel in not quite fifty years - and the old stager's flare for moulding the monstrous from the mundane shows no signs of flagging. We are in suburban London, where the young but legacy-wealthy Stuart Font is squandering his money on designer shirts and married women. Who should show up at the party he throws to celebrate his riches? Only his lover's husband, armed with a heavy stick? From here the plot spirals hither and thither, held together at times only by the centrifugal power of Rendell's genius for character. As good a novel as any this year. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: So that you can make everyone you know happy by recommending it to them.
The fair maiden in question is Katya, the 16-year-old progeny of a trailer trash family who makes a living as a nanny to the well-heeled. One day, while window-shopping with a pram in tow, she is spotted by Marcus Kidder, an old-school charmer in his 68th year. Soon enough she is posing in red lingerie for this amateur painter, though Katya herself seems less alarmed than the reader at the Nabokovian turn her life has taken. It will take a few more turns in what is subtitled "a novel of dark suspense", for Oates is one of our greatest plotters and this one of her most cunning. Sheer joy. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because you really have no way of knowing what's going to happen next.
Two rivalrous couples, university friends who haven't seen each other for years, come together to share a country cottage over a hot and stormy bank holiday weekend. What could possibly go wrong? Cue class tensions, macho competitiveness, bedroom rancour and heartbreakingly brutal? but that would be telling. Sufficient to say that the gradual self-revelations from Morrison's narrator, troubled teacher Ian Goade, cast dark shadows on a story in which it is difficult to trust anyone overmuch. What marks this novel out, though, is its feeling for weather - for the turbid heat and lowering skies of an English summer. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because it's far superior to the new Amis and McEwan you've been told to have your eye on
The 37th in the Spenser PI series - and, alas, the last, for Parker (surely the most deserving inheritor of the Raymond Chandler mantle) died not long after completing it. Thankfully, the book is a worthy crown to a long career - by some measure the most cunningly constructed Spenser case for years. A quartet of women task our man with tracking down a sharp operator who has not only bedded them all but has subsequently threatened to tell their wealthy husbands all about their dirty deeds. A brisk, breezy read guaranteed to have newcomers trawling the Spenser back catalogue within minutes of finishing it. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because now they really don't write 'em like that any more.
The fifth in the Simon Serailler cop opera series, though Simon himself is absent for a deal of the action (holidaying on a remote Scottish Island enjoying some much needed bed and bawd). Back in Lafferton, though, someone is slaughtering the local ladies of the night. Then the wife of the Cathedral's new Dean goes missing? The joy of Hill's detective stories is that plotted with fiendish glee though they may be, they're really exercises in character study. Not just the hero is under observation, either. Hill, who made her name amid the ghostly and the gothic, gets under the skin of the deranged, too. Seriously disturbing. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Because it's just likeThe Archers, except that stuff happens.
A Dickensian spirit infuses Peter Carey's fiction, and his latest novel, a picaresque romp through post-revolutionary France and England and on to America, is no exception. If you want to know what life was like for a young Normandy nobleman (the titular Olivier) in fear of the guillotine, or what went on in a nineteenth century illicit printing house in the South Hams (where Parrot works), start here. There's a case for arguing that once Carey has got our two heroes together and across the pond the book becomes almost too action-packed. Still, despite its slops and spills, this is one of the year's most nutritious reads. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: For the glorious gluttony of Carey's all-seeing eye.
A ghost story, but also a slice of social history: anyone wishing to know what Attlee's Britain was like could do worse than start here. We are in Warwickshire, where local working class lad made good Dr Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall, there to treat a hysterical maid. There, too, to eye Caroline Ayres, the bit of posh who is doing her best to keep the family pile a going concern. It sounds like a post-war class parable, but The Little Stranger's great virtue is its refusal to metaphorise horror. At times its ghost might be an expression of the Ayres's snobbery, at others an indictment of it. WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To feel the fear
Everybody's fantasised about doing away with their wife (or husband), but Hitchcock worshipper David Pepin is going one stage further: he's writing a novel about his fantasy. Then his wife is found dead (apparently of a peanut allergy), and the two cops on the case have no doubt who killed her. Given that they both have reason to murder their own wives, though, mightn't they be projecting their own fantasies? Ross's debut is an assured noir comedy that plays postmodern havoc with narrative logic. Yes, it is a little too clever for its own good - but better that than the braindead torpor of so many conventional thrillers.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: To have narrative rug after narrative rug pulled from under your feet.