Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Summer Reading

I've been absent from this blog for almost this whole month now. Two reasons mainly: 1. I've been too busy reading and 2. it's been too sunny to be indoors on a lap-top for more than what is duly necessary!

See summer is the best time to read. Sunny days encourage lolling outside and what better lolling accessory than a book I ask? All up and down the country and on sandy beaches on far shores, books are burgeoning. Book sales must go up so much in summer. Despite all the new technology out there, people's preferred method of relaxation on holiday is to lay by a pool/beach/air conditioner reading a book. A book is a real summer essential, a suitcase must. Even people who aren't voracious readers take to it in the summertime. And voracious readers all-year-round? Well they just go mad in summer, buying books to the quantity and speed by which other people buy ice-cream.

Summers when I was young were the best summers and reading featured largely in them, as it does now. I remember building a 'reading tent' in the garden to stay out all evening cold-free and midge-free and read (it consisted most modestly of a sheet draped on the clothes-line with a chair and flashlight/candle encamped underneath).  And lots of books were devoured there: Point Horrors as a teenager, classics like Wuthering Heights as I got older. 

To me, the best thing about summer (then and now) is the infinite stretch of reading time available. There are no 9-to-5 routine restraints, the months open up as a grand horizon with all the time in the world to lounge and read. Or, so it seems.

There's something about reading in sunlight that is so amiable. It's good for you: you're getting fresh air and a suntan while you do it, improving your mind and your immune system. It also feels less isolated an activity and more inclusive and sociable. While in the garden poring over pages, you are comforted that, at this exact moment there are many others positioned in deckchairs in their gardens too, turning pages and getting lost in stories while the sun beams down as a mega reading light amp. At least one neighbour as far as the eye can see anyway, and many more if I head beach-wards (yes, reading is even a beach activity - imagine that! Like the glory of the geek who just slam-dunks their way into the basketball team!)

Summer reading also adds to the book I think. Let me explain. I remember most vividly the books I've read under the glow of sunshine. 'Cloud Atlas' last summer is one. To this day I still associate apocalyptic dystopian futures and our overall connectivity with fresh mint tea and a frayed straw sun hat. And the year before that it was 'Life of Pi' and its stormy seas of shipwreck that characterised summer days of 2011. Before that, I remember the addictive turning of pages of the swashbuckling escapist adventure of Isabel Allende's 'Zorro' while riding out summer rain with hot chocolate aplenty (since then, hot chocolate on a rainy day in summer has become a must).  Every summer it seems, there's a stand-out book that defines the summer for me.

This year, my biggest 'summertime' read to date has been 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' which I finished a few days ago. It's a book I've been meaning to get around to for years, but was always put off for some reason. To me it just seemed like another war love-story cliché and I steered away from its dense unwelcoming prose. But as often happens with books, we are not ready to read them at one particular time for whatever reason, but then come back to them unexplainably, just as we drift back to potential suitors who seemed lacklustre before, but brim with light now.

Plus I came to it as I like to pick books to read in the summer that have a nice summery setting! Captain Corelli's Mandolin is set on a Greek island - you couldn't get more summery than that! I know this is a little biased, but hey, who wants to sit in the sun reading about the polar ice caps? Nothing more upsetting than to delve into a new book in mid-summer and discover it's set in the depths of winter! Sun it is, sun it has to be! In print and in presence. So I set off with this book to the garden and loved it from a few pages in. The writing is ornate and poetic, as well as humorous and self-deprecating. The story is beguiling and full of wisdom, the characters fully-fledged and memorable, the lessons grave and heart-touching. There could come along yet another book that will top this one, but this I feel, is the quintessential summer read. I can't imagine sitting by a fire in December reading about the blue skies of Cellaphonia and its turquoise clear waters, with the light so bright so as to make everything translucent. Nope. I need to fit the setting to the season.

Other books that I've been wiling away the sunny time gloriously with (and these come with a high recommendation!) include: 

'A Tale for the Time Being' - Ruth Ozeki 

This book has just been announced for the 2013 Man Booker prize longlist I see, and rightly so. It's an engaging and original story, told by two narrators, one who discovers the other's diary via the sea. Ozeki, who is of Japanese heritage, offers us a fascinating glimpse into Japanese culture here - from Zen Buddhism to suicide cults to kamikaze bombers in WWII - and it is eye-opening. One narrator is a teenager, Nao, and her reader who has found the diary, the author herself, Ruth. Nao lives in Japan, Ruth in Canada. As Nao recounts the story of her great-great- grandmother and simultaneously, her own personal troubles in life, Ruth's own self and story seem to take shape and emerge alongside it.

The title is a double-entendre: this story can be seen as a tale for our time, 'the time being', it certainly is in Nao's case, and in Ruth's; but it is also a tale for Nao, who describes herself as 'a time being' and anyone else who sees themselves as this also. It reflects on huge themes like the meaning and nature of time, war, the idealism of youth and the realism of adulthood, the dilemma of morality, what it means to be human, what it means to be brave, what it means to be noble in this world as well as love the world, what it means to be alive, really alive.  The structure is original, as are the characters and the story. The ending, especially, offers an intriguing question that will have your mind looped for days. In what for me, is a mark of a good book, you'll have to pause many times while reading it, just to look away for a moment and absorb the extent of its effect on you.

Another one that had me flipping the pages madly was:

'The Hundred Year Old Man Who Jumped Out a Window and Disappeared' - Jonas Jonasson

This is much lighter reading! It's hard to think of a novel that is not about war and tragedy and the worst of humanity when thinking of what constitutes a 'great book.' But gosh, is this book great - great in an entirely different way! It's laugh-out-loud funny as well as being completely clever and always a step ahead of your reckoning what will happen next. It's an adventure story to the highest degree (the action begins when Allan Karlsson departs his care home on the eve of his 100th birthday and takes off on a haphazard journey that'll see him make the acquaintance of criminals, comrades and even an elephant!)
The ensuing plot line is interspersed with reflections on Allan's life up to this point and well, what a heck of a life! Turns out unassuming Allan has rubbed shoulders with all the famous name of history  - from drinking tequila with Harry Truman to having dinner with Stalin. Allan sure gets about in what develops to be a comical story, an absurdist tale, a historical narrative of the past century in basic human terms and a common-sense critique of it, but above all,  a parable on freedom, a daring declaration that life does not end so easily just because we get older!

The author is Swedish and the book has been enjoying immense success since it was a bestseller there and then translated. It is so entertaining, you won't want to put it down and leave Allan for a moment in the midst of one of his high-risk escapades (my favourite - trying to escape Communist-controlled North Korea during the Korean War by comically impersonating a German official). And if you like history, especially the events of the World Wars and the Cold War, you'll love this author's take on it, inserting the main character into every historical event of importance since WWII with such ease and farcical pomp that it's damn hard not to believe that he was there, what with his calm demeanour and unshakeable faith in the importance of drinking and dining. I can see the movie coming shortly!

Summer is a time for blockbuster and bestseller books yes, but also, I find, a time for re-reading your favourites. One I always come back to in the summer is 'The Great Gatsby' (see 3 posts ago*) ~ but of course! It is set in high summer in grand old New York of the '20s with all of its outdoor parties, mint juleps, flapper dresses, summer love, oppressive heat and the attendant sweltering expectations of summer: "And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” Once again, I first read it in summer, and it's in summer that I keep going back to it. 

Oh, and what about all those unread classics we always put off till the summer? Everyone's guaranteed to have at least one on their list! This year mine's 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'.  But, wait a minute. I think it was that last year too.... Oh well. Maybe the sun will fire up the motivation this year. Yep, some day now, I'll be travelling that Mississippi river... Life's too short for the classics I say, but in summer, it may prolong and pause itself just enough to get one dusty Penguin finished. Here's hoping...

Other 'summery' reads that I'm hoping to get to next include:
 -'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' by Deborah Moggach  - India is the setting for this, it can't get any hotter or sunnier than that now!
-'Letters to Juliet' by Lise & Ceil Friedman - the inspiration for the film of the same name, exploring the people who are behind 'Juliet's' replies to lovestruck letters in Verona (what could be more summery than Ital-eey with those olive trees and gelato and amore blossoming in the background...!)
-'Flight Behaviour' by Barbara Kingsolver - Because what could sing out summer better than a story with a host of Monarch butterflies at its core, set in a small town in the Appalachians? A sweltering setting and a summer motif, what could be better? See these are books you just wouldn't read in the winter!

Summer and winter (Christmas) seem to be the biggest book selling times. And notice too, how some books are marketed to the season? A host of chick-lit books adorned with covers depicting sandy beaches, parasols and cocktails by the pool invade the shelves at summer, while ones depicting couples wrapped in winter coats, snowflakes and roaring fires are the cover design of choice for winter releases. Seems it's not just me with the seasonal preference affixed, it's the markets too. 

How about you? Is summer your favourite season for reading? What's been your favourite read this summer? Your most-coveted? What does your summer 2013 of reading look like? Or better still, your all-time favourite summer read?

Do tell! It's sociable after all, summertime reading!

~ Siobhán


  1. I completely agree with the fact that in Summer you are drawn to Summery books - books set on Greek islands or sweltering India, books set in the South of France or the orange groves of Spain.

    I'm reading 'The God of Small Things' at the moment, by Arundhati Roy - have you read it? It's one of those books I've had on my unread shelf for ages, mentally filed under 'I really should get around to reading this'. It's absolutely beautiful, and I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. It's set in India, and the writing is just gorgeous - lines like, 'The only thing that shone were the giant cockroaches that scurried around like varnished gofers on a film set', or 'Now they were going to miss the beginning of the picture. When Julie Andrews starts off as a speck on the hill and gets bigger and bigger till she bursts onto the screen with her voice like cold water and her breath like peppermint'. Lots of fireflies, too. And water. And yellow moons. A definite recommendation.

    Some wonderful recommendations from you also - into my Amazon basket they go :)

    I don't know that I could choose a favourite reading season, but I do like the extremes - reading in the grass in the height of Summer with a frozen cocktail on hand, giant sunglasses and plenty of coconut-scented sunscreen, or else deep in the depths of Winter in a scorching hot bubble bath, or under layers and layers of heavy wool blankets with a toasty hot water bottle and a cup of tea...

  2. Thanks Cheryl for the input! - I have indeed heard of that book, it's on my 'To-Read' list as well - what beautiful descriptions they are! Another one to be added so.

    Sometimes I feel like there's too many books and not enough time! - They are piling up in their kilos around me! And I always take so long deliberating over what to read next once I've finished one (too many good choices all vying for the place) and that's why in summer, I make the decision easier by narrowing it down to books with summer settings/vibe.

    At the moment I've just picked up (en route to my next fiction novel) a brilliant sort of treatise on reading and life - Alain de Botton's 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' - and it's VERY good. It makes a strong case for the pleasures and benefits of reading via Marcel Proust, explaining humorously and beautifully how reading helps us connect with and enjoy life all the more... Interesting! And it's even maybe persuading me to acquire a copy of Proust's megatonne of a book!

    Oh you make a lovely case for winter reading! I do love Christmastime reading, it feels like permission for a 'read-in' or something! And it's hard to beat the 'snuggled-up' reading time winter offers, not to mention the fire, with a glass of wine and some chocolate! Ha, there has to be a book out there detailing reading habits - I'm sure there's so many varied and quirky habits!

    Well, here's to reading, in all seasons! :)

  3. Your passion for reading makes my heart smile! Summer is an excellent time for reading, but wintertime reading is also dear to me--cozying up with hot cocoa and a new book, sheltered from the cold. I'll be adding at least one of these books to my "to read" list. :)

  4. Aw thank you Brittany! Yep I do love winter reading too! It's a veritable toss-up! :)


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