Summer is finally here, and that means waves of new (and in the main) forgettable books posed for “beach reading”, which I think is another way of saying turning off your brain and feeding your mind junk food.
However, that need not be the case! Here are ten books that you may never have heard of (or that you've been deliberately avoiding), in several different genres.
1. Debut Memoir: Beryl Bissel, The Scent of God.
I tend not to like memoirs: you can’t trust them as history as it actually happened, but often as the author wished it had happened. However, novelist Ann Patchett personally recommended this book to me when it came out in 2006 and I’ve been grateful for the recommendation ever since. Without giving too much of the story away, suffice to say that Bissel tells a fascinating tale of life inside and out of a Carmelite convent, and later with the Blue Army (The World Apostolate of Fatima), and her family’s dysfunctions and foibles, struggles and joys. A prestige first volume.
2. Forgotten Classic Novel: John Williams, Stoner.
First of all, this book has nothing to do with “being stoned” or “high”: it is the last name of the protagonist (who is not a drug addict, but farm-boy turned university professor). Second, Stoner has always gotten rave-reviews in the UK—it’s been called “The perfect novel”—which isn’t far off, but its popularity languished in the US. However, it is now back in print and we’re all the richer for it. It is, perhaps, the book I most often recommend when someone asks me what novel they should read next. Reads as fresh and real today as it did when it debuted in 1965.
3. Short-Fiction: Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen, Ill Said
The man who made mid-20th-century theatre live again with his ingenious “Waiting For Godot”, was, at heart, a poet. In this short book, which is either a long “proem” or “poetry-in-prose”, Beckett uses the sparest of language to take the reader on a journey with the simple repetition of the word “on.” He never wrote anything like it, before or after, and it remains one of the most unique (and neglected) works of the past 100 years of Irish writing (though Beckett originally wrote it, as he did all things, in French).
4. Philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus
When was the last time you sat down and read a book of philosophy outside of a classroom? (Me neither.) However, the Tractatus has a couple of things going for it: first, it is broken up into small, tiny, numbered bite-sized pieces that read a little like aphorisms. Second, the entire book is all of 80 pages long. Finally, you’re dealing with a bona fide genius here (among other things he designed and built a piece of outstanding architecture in Vienna: a house for his sister simply called “The Wittgenstein House”), who was also a school teacher (and later a professor at Cambridge), so he knew how to reach his audience without talking (or writing) down to them. His most famous dictum from this work: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must be silent.”
5. Anthology. In Transition: Writing and Art from transition Magazine 1927-1930: A Paris Anthology. For three years transition was the most important magazine published in the English language—even though it was headquartered in between the wars Paris. This short (250 page) anthology includes fiction by Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, Franz Kafka, and most notably, James Joyce’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle” selection of Finnegans Wake which is translated into English from Joyce’s own crazy language. Includes artwork from Picasso, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, Georges Braques and Alexander Calder, along with photography by Man Ray and Bernice Abbot, and makes for one of the most interesting (and readable) literary anthologies ever.
6. Long Fiction: The Desire & The Pursuit of the Whole by Frederick Rolfe.
It’s a love story, but a love story about the love between a man and a city, namely “The Serene Republic”, Venice. Though Fredric Austin Mary Lewis Serafino Rolfe, also known as Baron Corvo and “Fr. Rolfe”, never made a cent from any of his many writings in his time (or from his paintings or his “invention” of color photography, or underwater photography) and died penniless and a broken man in Venice, posthumously at least his work has been rehabilitated. And while his novel Hadrian The Seventh (in which a British Catholic layman is elected pope) was the most popular work Rolfe wrote, The Desire & The Pursuit of the Whole is the best, and for lovers of Venice an indispensible book.
7. Creative Short-Non Fiction: Montaigne’s Essays
Sometimes it’s good to go with the inventor of a genre and Montaigne invented the modern essay as we know it. He was many things including the mayor of Bordeaux, a Royalist, a Catholic (if a bit of skeptic), but mainly he was a writer who literally built a tower on whose beams he had inscribed famous Latin and Greek sayings. He wrote about whatever was on his mind with all the enthusiasm of the true amateur who has just enough knowledge of his subject to have a legitimate opinion—but Montaigne also did his homework, too, which makes any reading of his selected essays not only a pleasure, but a learning experience. His topics range from “On Cannibals” to the more Christian “On Repentance” to “The Education of Children” and, a subject near to John Donne’s heart “On the custom of wearing clothes”. He is said to have had a huge influence on Shakespeare.
8. Drama: Samuel Beckett: “Happy Days”
The one thing you can safely say about Samuel Beckett’s plays is they are, more or less, short. After that, all bets are off. Though, as mentioned above, his “Waiting for Godot” made his name as both an enfant terrible and the most acclaimed playwright of his generation, “Happy Days” is a descent into a world of weirdness. Act One finds the protagonist, Winnie, buried up to her waist in dirt, while her husband crawls around her and she produces items from her pocketbook. Act Two opens with Winnie now buried up to her chin. Hard to imagine, strange to see (I’ve actually seen a live production of this play) Beckett’s sparse, pared-down language—again, originally written in French, which he translated into English—invites us to a world we’ve only dreamt of. Or rather seen in our nightmares.
9. Short-Non-fiction: Oxford’s Very Short Introduction Series
Take your pick of interests here: from American Studies to Writing and Script, Oxford University Press has put out over one-hundred different titles in this series. All of them are just 100 pages long, most of them are illustrated, and cost under $12.00. An added bonus: every book in this series is written and edited by an expert in their field. Right now I’m enjoying Christopher Butler’s Modernism: A Very Short Introduction. Find the title that’s right for you this summer!
10. Novel: Graham Greene: Dr. Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party: he was perhaps the most bankable Catholic novelist of the 20th century (along with Evelyn Waugh), and this “late” (1980) story of an eccentric Swiss millionaire and his bizarre dinner “parties” is a break with Greene’s more traditional “travelogue”-based writings. If nothing else, he gets points for writing against type and late in his career at that.
Happy beach reading!