Summer Reads

July 29, 2008

A tall pine overhanging a dock, a comfortable reclining chair, a glass of something cold, and a soggy dog asleep at one’s feet. Anything missing? The book. Where’s the book?

Few pastimes in summer are as pleasant as an hour or two spent with a book under a favourite tree. Of course the attempt to match an unseen reader to a list of books brings to mind the futility of installing a set of roof racks on a boiled egg, but it doesn’t pay to let one’s reading list go stale from a lack of innovation, so here’s an attempt.

First I should mention the books which won’t do for dock-side reading. In the summer of 1974, Jaws made everyone stay out of the water. Speedo almost went bankrupt. By definition this does not make for a good summer book. Others are merely too delicious to put aside, and I tend to devour them the evening they arrive. Karl Hiassen’s novels lead this category for me. I reread his list about every two years. Double Whammy, a satire of pro bass fishing tournaments, stands out.

Elmore Leonard’s novels don’t keep, either. The same goes for Ken Follett, but I can recommend Pillars of the Earth, a historical novel about the emergence of a medieval village in England, as well as his spy novels.

The stories of Patrick McManus carried me through many a slack time in English class. McManus’s second novel Avalanche is currently available in bookstores. The retired professor and columnist for Outdoor Life and Field and Stream has a very light touch when it comes to sex, but the passage where the hero must carry an immobile but unembarrassed young woman clad only in a bedsheet up a cliff before a rising flood stands out as one of the more amusing chapters I have read since hitting middle age.

The list of books which will keep for summer begins with the novels of John LeCarre. I have always found his books hard to start, but very satisfying, once read. Single and Single had somehow escaped my notice until this month, but went down well.

My wife brought me home some books by Henry Porter, and I agree that he seems to have inherited the mantle from LeCarre as this generation’s master of the spy novel. A Spy’s Life (2001) is a good place to start.

Bet’s current favourite is Ian Rankin, a young British crime writer. I overheard her comment in a bookstore this week: “He’s young, so he should have a quite a few more good ones left in him.” She’s letting me read her copy of Witch Hunt at the moment.

Guy books:

Neal Stephenson’s novels. Start with Snow Crash, an action-packed skateboard epic, or Cryptonomicon, a novel about the development of the first computer for code breaking based upon a pipe organ and driven by steam. It’s a great big guy book.

In the sneakily funny Virtual Light, Vancouver writer William Gibson concentrates upon a reality television program Cops in Trouble, private security companies, wacko religious cults, and his series heroine, Chevette, who is a very engaging bicycle messenger and cat burglar.

Books women made me read:

Don Coyote, by Dayton O. Hyde. This book is about coyotes, but the American Library Association in 1989 named it one of the ten best books of the decade. I was astounded at how good a read it was.

A classmate insisted that I buy Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum: A Novel of British History. I’d always avoided historical novels, but once started I very much liked it. London and The Forest are outstanding reads, as well

The Blind Assassin. Margaret Atwood tells a complex and deceptive story in this difficult but hugely entertaining read. It’s set in upper class Ontario (yachts, mansions and factories) between the wars.

The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. Wonderful book. The nurse is a well- developed and thoroughly loveable character. The Indian bomb-disposal engineer offers an intelligent, non-European perspective on the war which puts the bombing of Hiroshima into an entirely different context. Hollywood wasted a movie gushing about the Raphe Finnes and Kristin Scott Thomas affair, but the French-Canadian nurse and the Indian engineer are the heart of the novel.

Jose Saramango won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 for Blindness. He earned the award. This is one of the best novels I have ever read, but it is not for the squeamish.

Roz contributed these non-fiction selections:

In The Song of the Dodo David Quammen gives a historical account of how islands (and the weird animals that live on them, like lemurs and komodo dragons) have contributed to our understanding of speciation and extinction, while recounting his own journeys to Madagascar, Indonesia, and the Galapagos to witness island biogeography for himself. This is a popular science book that is certainly entertaining enough for the dock. Another good one by Quammen that she finished recently is The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food deals with the problems with the modern western diet, and how the processed food industry figured out how to use nutrition science for profit at the expense peoples’ health.

UPDATE:  Bet’s been at it again.  This time she brought me Leaven of Malice, by Robertson Davies.  It won the 1954 Leacock Humour Award.  Set in and around a small-town newspaper editor’s office, the plot concerns a spurious announcement of the engagement of two prominent citizens and the libel action which follows.  I would not have picked this book up on my own, but it proved once again that intelligence and wit don’t go out of style.  The book is as funny as a Hiassen novel, only with more agreeable characters.

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