Summertime and the Reading Is Easy
Our summer holiday is just a week away (hooray) and a favourite activity (at least for one of us) is to do nothing except read in a cool shady place. Given our luddite tendencies, this means old-fashioned book reading. And while we hold libraries in the highest regard, we know books get wet, covered with sunblock, or loaned out never to be returned. So we set ourselves a luddite challenge: with a $20 bill (each) go to a brick and mortar store and purchase “books on paper” that we’d like to add to our library.
The logical hunting ground is the endangered second-hand book store. In New York our bookstore of choice is Strand Bookstore close to Union Square. The Strand has been around since 1927 and boasts 18 miles of new and used books. The joys of the Strand are two-fold: it has almost everything, and (even better) carts of $1-2 books ring the store outside.
So what are our picks?
- Alibi, Joseph Kanon – $7
- Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match, Len Deighton – $9
For me, the choice of books was easy: Alibi and the trilogy Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match. These are spy fiction. Readers of this blog will know of my fondness for spy fiction, especially from the 1930s and 1940s (Eric Ambler and Alan Furst) and Joseph Kanon fits this niche. Kanon might be best known for The Good German filmed by Steven Soderbergh. Much of Deighton’s work is set in the Cold War and he made his mark with the Ipcress File which became a film and was a key step in the career of Michael Caine.
The attraction of these authors is that the novels are set in the “accessible past”. The “accessible past” is well-documented, widely written about and it feels close enough to be imagined. These stories are all low-tech and they involve heroes who are relatively ordinary people either just doing their job, or are sucked into something beyond the orbit of their normal lives. These are not supermen of the Jason Bourne or James Bond type.
I am lucky enough to have been to many of the places where the stories are set and the writers are able to capture the atmosphere in a way that feels authentic and not contrived. The stories are rooted in fact with details and peripheral events and characters which are worth additional on-line research. Are these escapist fiction? Of course, I don’t expect to be smarter or a more rounded person after reading these, but I know that I will be relaxed and taken to another place for adventures that seem to be at least plausible. If the author can do that, then he (they are almost always male) has achieved his task.
I didn’t hunt with any theme in mind, but nevertheless it seems that I’ve chosen short stories/essays that transport the reader to another time or place. The ability to dip in and out of a story also suits my holiday propensity to nap any time anywhere.
- The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011—$1.00
Short stories: perfect for discovering new (to me) authors in a format that fits a holiday attention span (short). The jacket blurb promises “Tales that take place in such far-flung locales as Madagascar, Nantucket, a Midwestern meth lab, Antarctica, and a post apocalyptic England…”
- The Best of Simple, Langston Hughes—$1.00
I love the rhythm of Hughes’ poetry, but am unacquainted with his fiction. This is a collection of short stories about an Everyman set in 1950s Harlem. Hughes wrote, “It is impossible to live in Harlem and not know at least a hundred Simples…”
- Holidays In Hell, P.J. O’Rourke—$1.00
I’m revisiting these witty, grouchy conservative pieces that were so of the moment when I first read them 25 years ago. Now they’re a time capsule of the late 80s. How will they hold up? How has the world changed? Now since I’ve been to some of these places, what do I think of O’Rourke’s observations?
- A Married Man, Catherine Alliott—$1.00
A guilty pleasure beach read—a sort of Bridget Jones ten years on (or so it promises on the blurb). And it comes pre-soaked from the beach or bath. True pulp.
- And my splurge:
Just Kids, Patti Smith—$14.00
Just wanted to own this little gem. Pictures and the prose about the gritty 70s New York that I didn’t experience, but wished I could (sans drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases).