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.


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