I know what you’ll read this summer

Fay’s noticed something she’s never noticed before. That love is not, anywhere, taken seriously. It’s not respected. It’s the one thing in the world everyone wants – she’s convinced of that – but for some reason people are obliged to pretend that love is trifling and foolish.
Work is important. Living arrangements are important. Wars and good sex and race relations are important, and so are heath and illness. Even minor shifts of faith or political intentions are given a weight that is not accorded love. We turn our heads and pretend it’s not there, the thunderous passions that enter a life and alter its course. Love belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card, or in the annals of an old-fashioned poetry society. Moon and June and spoon and soon. September and remember. Lord Byron, Edna St Vincent Millay. It’s womanish, it’s embarrassing, something to jeer at, something for jerks. Just a love story, people say about a book they happen to be reading, to be caught reading. They smirk and roll their eyes at the mention of love. They wind and nudge. Lovebirds. Lovesick. Lovey-dovey. They think of it as something childish and temporary, and its furniture – its language, its kisses, its fevers and transports – are evidence of a profound frivolity. It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter and promiscuous century. Even here it’s happening, in this flat, midcontinental city with its half million people and its traffic and weather and asphalt parking lots and languishing flower borders and yellow-leafed trees – right here, the miracle of it.

I’ve decided good winter reads are the same as good summer reads. They basically require awesomeness. That is why I chose these from the To Read Pile for my winter holidays (exhaustively detailed on Instagram) – because I knew they’d be page-turners. So I’ve done the legwork for you on what to order in for the approaching summer holiday. Yep, it will be here before you know it.

Well, then, in order of preference:

The Republic of Love
(Carol Shields, 1991)

For a great winter read, just add whisky and a heater.

For a great winter read, just add whisky and a heater.

Quoted above. The Canadian Carol Shields is one of my all-time most beloved authors. She wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries and also Larry’s Party, my personal favourite. This is the story of Fay, a folklorist who has the dubious fortune to fall in love with a man already married three times. Her books are as engaging as Barbara Trapido’s but with a subtler flavour, a rolling rhythm and glorious detailing of character, of thought and of action. It feels as though she speaks to the secret places inside of you.

 

Jack Irish Quinella: Bad Debts and Blood Tide (Peter Temple, 2007; published individually 1996, 1999)

To enjoy this book in summer, simply remove the blankie.

To enjoy this book in summer, simply remove blankie.

This volume comprises the first two books in Australian crime writer Temple’s Jack Irish series, the first having won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel. Set in Melbourne, it features hero Jack Irish, a widowed ex-alcoholic lawyer who moonlights as a cabinetmaker, debt collector and accidental private investigator. These are highly readable mysteries with a compelling central character whose highlight is their blink-inducing use of Australian vernacular. But despite the local technicolour they never slide into parody and the nets of the plots, cast wide, are gathered slowly and carefully into killer climaxes. Even so, they didn’t make me cheer as hard as I did for the first Temple book I read recently, stand-alone The Broken Shore, another Ned Kelly award winner. This was what made me fall smack-bang in love with Temple’s writing – vivid, dark and beautiful.

Juggling (Barbara Trapido, 1994)

A warm and fuzzy read for winter. Or summer!

A warm and fuzzy read for winter. Or summer!

Picks up the stories of characters originally appearing in her earlier Temples of Delight, but functions fine as a stand-alone, following the gender, continent and common-sense-defying loves spanning several families. Far out, I just adore Barbara Trapido. I took this on holiday knowing full well I would chew through it with indecent speed. The words just fly off the page. But despite its relationship-exploring themes and dorky cover, this is nowhere near chick-lit. It’s fiercely funny, brightly intelligent literary fiction and it’s joyous. Pick up a book by Trapido – any one, seriously, it doesn’t matter – and clear your schedule. Don’t believe me?

Last Car to Elysian Fields (James Lee Burke, 2003)

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Forgot to photograph this alone, so here’s a tiny blurry version for you with a warming coffee break booktail chaser.

Burke is a stalwart of the literary crime genre, so it was high time I tried his Dave Robicheaux series. This cop is another alcoholic widower – what can I say, whether in fiction or film the cliché works – but this is anything but cliched. Rather it is a lilting portrait of the state of Louisiana, its people and history. A reverberating sense of place is shot through with a streak of pure melancholy – Robicheaux’s grief for not only his wife, but for the New Orleans he once knew. This was perhaps the most appropriate read for a holiday, as it transported me to a world truly strange to me.

 

Call the Dying (Andrew Taylor, 2004)

Best enjoyed, regardless of season, with German chocolate from Hahndorf.

Best enjoyed, regardless of season, with German chocolate from Hahndorf.

More literary crime, this time English, with a historical bent. I had previously read Taylor’s Gothic mystery The American Boy, set in the 1800s, a fine creepy read inspired by the early life of Edgar Allen Poe, a winner of the Crime Writers Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. I had high hopes for Call the Dying, a murder mystery set in an English country town around the 1950s. But despite my insatiable love for mid 1900s-set English crime (Agatha Christie obsession anyone?) I still preferred The American Boy to this. There was nothing whatsoever wrong with it or the plotting or execution of the mystery, and it had a very pleasing and entirely unexpected twist in the tail. It was perhaps just the least exciting of the pile.

Disclaimer: yes, I read these six books in two weeks, but they WERE page-turners, and I didn’t have anything else to do other than drink wine and eat cheese and go caving and horse riding and look at sea lions and then drink some more wine.

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 23: Boating for Beginners (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)

Books left: 3. Weeks left: 6 (just keep swimming).

‘I’d rather play Battleships but we haven’t any graph paper, have we?’
They hadn’t, and so they were forced to talk about the Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not you should write books which clearly fixed themselves into time or books which flouted the usual notion of time in order to clear the mind of arbitrary divisions.

boating for beginners

I revere many novelists, but it’s fair to say there are some for whom my feelings run deepest.

They include Peter Carey. Carol Shields. Lucy Maud Montgomery (shush). Isobelle Carmody. John Marsden. Tim Winton. John Wyndham.

And Jeanette Winterson.

My affair with Winterson (and it seems entirely appropriate to describe reading her books as such) began during my English degree with The Passion. This novel was assigned for a unit on postmodern narratives, but don’t hold that against it.

I’ve actually only read a couple more of her works since then, but this was enough to make Winterson one of the authors to make the most lasting impressions on me.

Long after the details of The Passion‘s alluring stories of labyrinthine Venice have faded, I remember how arrestingly its language and characters hit me, the pull of its mystery.

Winterson’s writing is sensual, thematically complex and unexpected. Her power of invention is so dazzling it seems inadequate to term it imagination or originality. Her creativity is not about novelty, charming though her novelties are; it is about what they ultimately serve to reveal, the truths about how people think and what they desire.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Is it any wonder I haven’t picked up one for so long? After uni, I craved meat and potatoes reading for several years, hence my impressive mental crime novel catalogue. And sometimes you just get out of the habit of wanting to be really moved, really unsettled. You just think… I’ve had a long day at work. I need some simple entertainment.

This sort of thinking has resulted in me hoarding several unread Wintersons for more than several years, so I thought it time to see if we still clicked, or whether my love was one best left in the past.

So I open the book and the storm hits.

Boating for Beginners, which I shamelessly chose because it was short, features a romance author called Bunny Mix, a God made of animated ice-cream and Noah, who created that God in a culinary accident.

They are pretending to make a blockbuster film, but they are actually planning to wreak havoc, destroy the world and rewrite history.

Unless, as synchronised swimmer-turned-transsexual potter Marlene says, a group of girls succeed in making “one heroic attempt at foiling that cosmic dessert and the little chocolate button that created him.”

‘I like reading books,’ insisted Marlene, ‘but I’m more concerned with how to get rid of the cellulite on my thighs. I mean, there’s plenty of books around but I’ve only got this one body.
‘Art shows us how to transcend the purely physical,’ said Gloria loftily.
‘Yes, but Art won’t get rid of my cellulite, will it?’
‘Art will show you how to put your cellulite in perspective,’ replied Gloria, wondering for a moment who was feeding her her lines.
‘I don’t want to put it in perspective,’ Marlene tried to be patient. ‘I want to get rid of it.”

Boating for Beginners turns out to be what the author herself described as a “comic book with pictures”, a laugh-out loud alternative to the Biblical flood myth, and a gimlet-eyed look at why people react to the story so powerfully.

I need not have feared it too smart to be fun. This story about people believing any story put to them, and creating their own histories, is wonderfully, confidently absurd.

I have decided to keep my pile of unread Wintersons and be less shy about dipping into it next time. Winterson is by no means a one-trick pony. She sparkles – and surprises – every time and deserves to be read now, not kept for another day.

We’re back on, in other words.

Keep or kill? In my new tradition (I am learning from this project) I am going to pass this on along with my other already-read Winterson titles. But I’m keeping those yet unread and I’m keeping The Passion.