Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Heat Seeker? Cool Hunter? I've Got a Book For You

I find that people fall into two distinct camps in life: those who long for the hot humid days of summer to stretch on forever…

...and those who pull out their knitting needles in August in feverish anticipation of the increased sartorial options that autumn weather brings.

Guess which camp I'm in? 
(Fingerless mittens. Knit kit from Wool and the Gang HERE.)

That being said, I read several books this summer that made me take another look at the undeniable pleasures of sun, sand and Sangria. Below, a half dozen reads to suit whichever side of the thermometer you prefer to perch on.


The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough

Location: Mallorca

Heat factor: Scorching. Swimsuits optional.

I love this book so much. Set in the artistic enclave of Deya, Mallorca in the 1960's and written by Robert Graves grand nephew, it's a "subjective" memoir (i.e. all true but he doesn't want to get into a James Frey situation) with a deeply intoxicating cast of characters. There's Robert, the world-famous poet who oscillates between magnanimous host and irascible hermit, Margot, the bewitching mistress/muse, Beryl, the long-suffering supercool wife, and a steady stream of visiting artists and eccentrics who put on plays in the backyard grotto and argue and dance until dawn. When Simon falls head over heels in love with one of Robert's mistresses, well, there's that wee little complication too.

Do me a favor -- take seven minutes of your life and watch this interview with the author HERE. My bet is you'll be smitten too.
(Robert Graves and one of his mistresses, Deya, 1970's. Via.)

The Rock Pool by Cyril Connolly

Location: South of France

Heat factor: Hot, oppressive. Open-necked shirt, sailor trousers.
(Image via. Buy it HERE.)

The Rock Pool was Cyril Connolly's only novel (you can read a more extensive post I wrote about him HERE). It chronicles the adventures of an aspiring writer in search of the chic Riviera lifestyle depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night  but who discovers instead a small French artists' colony that's altogether darker and more callous. Connolly writes with strong undertones of sexuality. Take this passage:

"Dry again?" said the Crab to the Rock-Pool. "So would you be," replied the Rock-Pool, if you had to satisfy, twice a day, the insatiable sea."

Characters are always always sleeping off hangovers in dark airless rooms and the feeling tends to stay with you -- you'll want to make sure you stay hydrated while reading this book.

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

Location: Tangier

Heat factor: Fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot, but wear a jacket anyway, you're going to a party.


Bowles' second novel, Let It Come Down, is set among the Tangier elite ("Tangerinas") and has a fish-out-of-water American protagonist but there's more drugs, more parties, and more corruption than in The Sheltering Sky -- think Less Than Zero meets Casablanca. Bowles' spare stylized prose packs a wallop: he doesn't go heavily into description but with a cafe called Lucifer, he doesn't have to. And in true Bowles fashion, just when you think you're having fun, there's a bit of nihilism to remind you where you're headed:

"If you let yourself have a really good time, your health goes to pieces, and if your health goes, your looks go. The awful part is that in the end, no matter what you have done, no matter how careful you may have been, everything falls apart anyway."


The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Location: Swiss Alps

Cool factor: Bracing mountain air. Wear your summer ermine.


If you're new to Stefan Zweig, this is a very good place to start. The story of a penniless village girl who receives a Cinderella invitation from her aunt to stay at a luxury Alpine spa, it starts off stylishly and spirals disturbingly downward, a Zweig literary hallmark. But oh! the textiles! From fur-lined cloaks to embroidered bedspreads and felted alpenwear, you'll completely forget that outside it's ninety in the shade.

Interesting tidbit: Wes Anderson based "The Grand Budapest Hotel" partly on Zweig's description of the hotel in The Post Office Girl. Read all about it HERE.

A Story Lately Told by Angelica Huston

Location: Ireland, memorably

Cool factor: Misty, damp. Turf fires, Aran sweaters, riding boots.

I started listening to this on a recent 3,000 mile road trip  and was immediately captivated by Angelica's lyrical evocation of her childhood in a romantic manor house in Ireland. It's all there: the sparkling hoarfrost at dawn, the roaring fires in the hearth, the fox hunts and the buttoned-up Irish nannies stirring porridge on the stove. Listen to it on Audible and I wouldn't be surprised if you told me you'd knitted a sweater by the last chapter.

(St. Clerans, where Angelica grew up. Via.)

The Worst Journey in the World by Cherry Apsley-Garrard

Location: South Pole

Cool factor:  A frigid hell beyond all imagining.


Cherry Apsley-Garrard was one of the only surviving members of Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole and his memoir of their hardships makes for a gripping read. What elevates the book to a classic, however, is the record Garrard gives of his team's spirit and grace in the face of heartbreaking odds. It's a stirring testament to the tenacity and -- yes -- humor that lies at the core of the British character:

"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised."

"I am glad The Worst Journey is [being published by] Penguin; after all it is largely about penguins."

Read with a tumblerful of Scotch within arm's reach.


Mystica said...

I was hoping you would do another Israeli post. I found the two you did enthralling.

Coming from the tropics no change of seasons for me. The books are intriguing though and I do so like the descriptions!

Jenny said...

I absolutely love this blog post! Great recommendations, and I'm already searching out four of the books. Thank you!!

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I just bought the Graves' book, and I thank you for this wonderful post. I am planning to read the Bowles one next.

donna baker said...

Just got Murakami's new book and The Alchemist. Every time I pick up the knitting needles, I find I've forgotten how.

jill johnson said...

Your book recommendations are always so interesting.
Glad to see a post from you!

Kathryn said...

Thanks for the recommendations--especially the Zweig book. I traveled to Switzerland this summer and had a difficult time finding novels set there. Off to order a copy now and download the Huston memoir for when I'm in the car (or knitting around the house.) I've been listening to a history of Switzerland and it's mostly about cheese, which has produced nary a knit or a purl.

Michelle said...

An unabashed cool hunter, I am counting the days till fall. However, I do plan on reading Paul Bowles first. Have you heard the story "Courting Paul Bowles in Tangier" by Edgar Oliver on The Moth Radio Hour? If not, do yourself a favor and listen to this captivating, true story. I think you will like it.

kaggsysbookishramblings said...

Fabulous post - the Gough book sounds amazing, despite the fact I'm loving the the cooler nip in the air. The Connolly is marvellous too - thanks for the recommendations!

Anonymous said...

I want you to know how much I appreciate the work and talent it takes to present this blog. This post is another example of generosity. Think of the time it takes to research, find the images, do the writing. This is an outstanding example of blogging at its best and it inspires me to keep improving my blog every time I post. Love the header/title which drew me in right away. Congratulations of a grand contribution to books/reading and the blogging world. (Loved the Utube clip.)

Natasha Wittman said...

I am so intrigued by your reading suggestions! Thank you for posting this! Upon reading your summer suggestions I am reminded of two films: The Long Hot Summer and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. And one book: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! :)

Lisa Thomson said...

Oh my goodness, thank you for these amazing recommendations, Lisa! I would not have heard of any if not for you and your wonderful blog. Maybe Angelica's...but wow. You have great taste. I haven't decided which camp I'm in yet (Hot or Cold?).

Lisa B. said...

I always look forward to your blog posts. I'll echo Stepheny's sentiments--I so appreciate your efforts/talents!

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Tomas said...

I've just watched the video which you recommend. I like how passionately Simon talks about his work. Especially I was impressed by his workplace, environment. All this room, these books... There is such a mess but at the same time it's so cozy that you can feel an artist's spirit.

Karena said...

Superb recommendations Lisa, I am so excited a order a couple of these! Perfection to end the summer!

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JenV said...

I am so glad I watched that video with my morning coffee. My day is all the better for it. Also, love these recommendations and I have ordered the first. Thanks! said...

I love the black and white photos!

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carrps said...

Wow, I've read so many of these. I do feel like I've discovered a kindred spirit.

Even though I've only read Graves's "White Goddess," not his nephew's take, and my copy of "The Rock Pool" is sadly dachshund gnawed.

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