Whether you’re spending your holiday on the sandy beaches of Forte dei Marmi, in a summer house in Norway, on a boat along the Dalmatian coast, or just hanging out for a long weekend at the Tresanton…we have choice books for all destinations. Summer reading presents two options – read all those newly released and over-hyped paperbacks from the autumn/winter season before (no!) or pick up and read or re-read the world’s great books (yes!). In no particular order, here are 11 favourites that will be making into our travel bag. (Note: The 1960s feature heavily here, as does America, for reasons we can’t explain.)
John Cheever, Bullet Park (1969) Too little read in the UK, Cheever is one of those great American writers of the 50s-70s, slicing open the guts of northeastern suburban middle classes. His short stories are superb (See ‘The Swimmer’ turned into a weirdly wonderful film of the same name, starring Burt Lancaster); his journals profound, but for a seething account of the American dream as nightmare, Bullet Park can’t be bettered. One part Salinger, one part Updike, two parts gin.
JD Salinger, Franny and Zooey (1961): And while we’re admiring 1960s American fiction of the non-countercultural kind, why not revisit one of our favourite little novels, Franny and Zooey, the bittersweet account of the existential angst and general disillusion a brother and sister during a weekend in 1955. More or less perfect of its kind.
Alex Bellos, Futbol: The Brazilian Way of Life (2002 ): South American correspondent for the Guardian in the late 1990s, Bellos’s book on football in Brazil, where football isn’t just for life, it’s for eternity, is one of the best books about the beautiful game ever. EVER! He gets their passion, their madness, and he tells you all kinds of great stuff, like where the yellow shirt comes from.
John McPhee, Levels of the Game ( 1969): Arthur Ashe, the first great black tennis champ, vs. Clark Graebner, old-school Republican, middle-class white guy tennis champ, slugging it out at Forest Hills. This is McPhee’s brilliant conceit in a narrative not only about tennis, but about racial and class politics in America in a turbulent time of change. McPhee is one of the greatest sports journalists ever, and he parlays his sporting knowledge into a deeply affecting study of two opposites who meet on centre court.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992): Okay, it’s basically glossy trash, but of a high order. A campus murder novel about a little clique of classicists, Tartt smartly sniffs out the cruelty of class and privilege. We can’t remember what actually happens, though, so are willing to give it another go.
Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (1967): One of the world’s best filmmakers interviews one of the world’s best filmmakers, at length, and it’s brilliant. Take a stack of Hitchcock DVDs on holiday with you, bring this book along, and you’ll be guaranteed hours of intelligent fun. (You might also bring along Truffaut’s film, ‘The Bride Wore Black’, his most obvious homage to Hitch.)
The Letters of Noel Coward (2007), edited by Barry Day: We used to avoid letters, but the more we learn to resent email, the more we long for the epistolary form. Coward knew everyone, of course, and his charm, wit and bon-vivance litter every page. The British do letters better than most – see also that recent collection of letters by those crazy Mitford sisters (they don’t make them like that anymore!), or for something both sweet and sour, the letters of Kenneth Williams.
Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1995): Most holidaymakers would probably opt for Dyer’s globe-trotting travel book and general life-musing, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, but we’re a bigger fan of this riff on 8 jazz greats. Less about the music than the men, he roams freestyle across the drug-addicted, depressed, self-obsessed, mentally unstable, wandering lives of folk like Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell.
WG Sebald, Rings of Saturn (1998): Essentially, a long, long walk around Suffolk, Sebald’s genre-busting book takes in the decay and ruins of that strange and uniquely British thing, the seaside town. The landscape is mediated by Sebald’s own memory, but also the collective memory of the countryside. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. A good one to take with you to Aldeburgh.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (1985): Before there was the Border Trilogy, before there was that bijou masterpiece, The Road, there was Blood Meridian, a bold, stunningly written account of the violence at the heart of America’s western dreams. Almost obscenely bleak at times, the novel is redeemed through word-perfect prose. Some think this the greatest American novel of the 20th century.
Eveyln Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945): We’re anticipating the autumn release of the new film of Brideshead, starring Emma Thompson and Ben Whishlaw, by rereading it this summer. Okay, it’s fey and overwrought in places, but it’s still a fine summer read (we hope), and an engaging account of the fall of the aristocracy during a time of war. Catholics, claret and queers don’t always make for page turning, but this does.
Others we’d like to include but didn’t:
Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays
The Brothers Goncourt, The Goncourt Journals
EM Forster, Howard’s End
‘The Complete Short Stories’ (if they exist) of the following: JG Ballard, Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Katharine Anne Porter, Saki and the short fiction of Henry James.
Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds
Edward Thomas, Collected Poems
Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
James Ellroy, American Tabloid