Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Summer Reading Bliss: A Retrospective

 "There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work;    and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs."  
~ Henry Ward Beecher 

Now that summer is drawing to a close I realise I am really going to miss my reading time.

There is nothing more definitive of summer for me than lying in the garden with the sun spotlighting the pages of a book (or indeed, as the case was most of the time this year - indoors at a window brailled with rain...) Summer may be the best time ever for reading. All that light. All that time outdoors. All that sense of escapism - of time unfolding in front of you as a wide golden berth, an endless horizon to fill with all kinds of dreaming and imagining, books the perfect propellers to imagination's engine.  Whole days to read, late nights and lazy mornings, and as such, the ability to immerse yourself completely in different worlds, uninterrupted. Bliss, in a word.

'One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.' ~ Jeanette Walls

This summer I have been gluttonous in my reading, navigating narratives on rainy days, sunny days, early mornings and late nights. There is always though, one defining book for me each summer, one that the whole summer seems to hang upon and reverberate from. A book that I can tell you exactly every nuance of what weather was doing while I was reading it; a book that led to more books of its kinds and countless imaginings; a book that dragged me hook, line and sinker into its world and still has not let go. That book for me, this year has to have been the recent Pulitzer prize-winning 'All the Light We Cannot See' by  Anthony Doerr. 


“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”  
This book is, as the title declares, a story full of light. Light in its most essential essence - revealing every little detail so as to illuminate this particular period in time, this particular story of life. The story is set during WWII in France and Germany, following the fates of two characters whose lives are intertwined -  Marie-Laure, a young blind girl who flees to St-Malo with her father when the Germans invade Paris and a young German boy, Werner, as he leaves the orphanage of his younger years to join the Hitler Youth and from there, the war. It is a story of war, but also of fate and character, of beauty and light. The writing, as I've come to expect from Doerr, is crystalline, rich in metaphor and image, sparkling with a poetic delight. The characters are all so memorable, so well-drawn that it was hard to close the page on them and leave them behind. It's a big novel, 500+ pages, but I sped through it, riveted by the dual narrative, the simultaneous plotting, the suspense, the beautiful language, the stories within stories.

I ended up then searching out other WWII novels (Suite Francaise, The English Patient, The Book Thief) so enthralled was I in that time.  But the story that Doerr tells is so unique and original, so unusual, that my search I know will be in vain. His shimmers like a fairytale but is also underpinned with a psychology that is so precise, and told in a voice that is so full of poetry and faith and hope.  It's the kind of book that immerses you in its story so much, especially its setting of St-Malo, the sea-swept walled town in Brittany, you will have not left it entirely when the story is over. (I can still smell the salt and see the narrow streets, the snail-lined hideaway, the shell-like house...) Anyway, you can read my Goodreads review of it: here. I highly, heartily, recommend it. You will learn new and surprising things about a time that is well-documented and what is most vital in a piece of fiction, be transported completely and irrevocably to the world of the novel. 

My guilty escapist summer reads (don't you just love those?) included nearly all of American author Sarah Addison Allen's novels. The experience akin to the succulent sweetness of a summer evening, the smell of sugar on the air and thrill of pink in the sky.  Sarah Addison Allen's novels fall under the genre of magic realism, but added to that should be romantic magic realism and whimsy. Her stories are light whimsical concoctions where conflicts dissolve and romances blossom with the help of a few magical stimuli (think floral food spells, eccentric family traits and characters, moon lore, fairy godmother ghosts, animate books and animals, and emotions manifesting in transformative ways.) All set in the lovely surrounds of North Carolina with quaint little towns and endearing characters. The author has often been compared to Alice Hoffman, but I'd say much more sugar-coated and whimsy-orientated. (Garden Spells, is, a bit like Practical Magic, but sweeter and more gorgeously decorative with food recipes and the like.) For me, they are also reminiscent of Nicholas Sparks films, but definitely with more quirky than cutesy elements and more original set pieces than predictable story-lines. Whimsical, wonderful, sensuous, feel-good feasts. 


They are also girly without being chick-lit - i.e. entirely consumed with love-life conundrums. They are whimsical, foody, dreamy and emotional without smacking of sentimentality, light quest narratives of becoming true to oneself. In a word they're lovely, with all its soothing connotations: cushy, cosy, charming and warm-hearted. Delightful reads that will transport you to worlds ruled by the heart. They are books to enjoy lying in daisy-spotted grass, the sun glinting gold lattice light on the pages, books to script daydreams by, all tinged with that rose-tint happy horizon glow of dreams coming true, if you just follow your heart (definitely a selling-point for summer evenings, when the light is long and lovely and softens any hard reality into a malleable dream-able one.)

Sound like the ideal summer fodder to you? Yep, if you need a break from serious literature and are a lovers of all things whimsical, these are my recommended choice.  

Other highlights of my summer reads included the sci-fi thriller (and soon-to-be-movie-release) 'The Martian' by Andy Weir; wallowing in the gorgeous language and light of Hardy's 'Far From the Madding Crowd'; the brutally stunning debut 'The Enchanted' by Rene Denfield; and the lilting and lovely weather-appropriate 'History of the Rain' by Irish author Niall Williams.

They say a great book is like an event and well if that's the case,  a variety of great summer reads makes for an eventful time. Every book I read in summer seems to stay with me more. Maybe it hearkens back to days of school holidays with an open, endless parade of reading time and the freedom of self-chosen material. Days at the beach round-reading with friends or early mornings in the garden trying to unreel the knotted words of classics  into a language that brimmed with gold, in hours that seemed gleefully stolen from life's frantic advancing pace. Reading is perfect for summer as it slows time down, even freeze-frames certain instances. You can press a moment between the pages of a book as well and delicately as you can a flower; there are in every book I've read from summers past, fragments of that time's goings-on preserved in their pages. Each book is a marker and a map of a particular summer's best-kept moments. That's why I savour summer reading. And now that it is coming to an end, there is always a certain melancholy. With it too, all those sunlit moments of endless basking, daydreaming, whimsy, freedom, spontaneity, possibility and panache, that are the hallmarks of summer's narrative. But while it lasted, sheer unadulterated reading/living bliss. 


So what have been your favourite summer reads? What stories have coloured your carefree days with narratives of worlds foreign and afar? Transported you on their magic carpet rides against a backdrop of pink-frilled skies and silken soft hours? What have  been the makings of your storied summer? Here's to holding its stories dear, both read and written, both imagined and real.

~ Siobhán


  1. This summer I've only read Hemingway. It's not as good as I remember but maybe it's I that changed.

    / Avy

  2. I love Hemingway, a well-chosen summer read! :) For me, his work only gets better with more reading. Or maybe it's that what the book had to say to you once no longer applies?


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