Life & Style

Sun, Sea & Typography

There’s reading, and then there’s holiday reading – whiling away long days in a hammock, lost in an unforgettable tale. Here, Collagerie’s favourite bibliophile Katie Law shares her pick of the best beach books…
Image: Via Pinterest

Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I finished Brodesser-Akner’s stunning debut, Fleishman Is In Trouble. It’s a huge, altogether more ambitious saga about an American Jewish family, the Fletchers. The story begins in 1980 when Carl Fletcher, a wealthy polystyrene manufacturer, is kidnapped from his Long Island home and held for a week until his wife, Ruth, pays the $250,000 ransom. As the decades roll by, the trauma of what happened, together with the family’s immense wealth, which turns out to be more volatile than anyone could have predicted, creates a series of family disasters. The characters: Carl and Ruth, Carl’s matriarchal Jewish mother Phyllis, their children Beamer, Nathan and Jenny and a host of extras, are superbly well-drawn. The author has said that she kept a Post-it note on her computer that said “Torture him”, because otherwise she risked making them too boringly nice. Think Succession meets Philip Roth – it’s utterly engrossing.

Mania by Lionel Shriver

This is sharp, witty satire about social justice. A new movement called Mental Parity is sweeping across America, which means having, at least publicly, to accept the ideology that relative intelligence doesn’t exist. Even to suggest someone is stupid will get you cancelled. That’s exactly where our heroine, Pearson Converse, is bound, since she still believes – knows – that some people are cleverer than others. She’s a college teacher who chose a high IQ sperm donor to father two of her children, and is now married to a handsome tree surgeon. One day she loses her temper in class and dares to use the word “retard” about her students. Her outburst is filmed on a smartphone, uploaded onto social media and goes viral after Pearson’s supposed best friend of several decades denounces her on a telly chat show. There’s a great payoff at the end, but some of the best bits are Shriver’s touching reflections on the loss of close friendship.

Poems To Swipe Right To, edited by Charlie Castelletti

Here’s a clever idea: a perkily-packaged anthology of classical love poetry, designed for modern times, when most of those looking for love are familiar with the ins and outs of dating apps. As Castelletti points out, the urge to seek, find and nurture love, and more often than not to suffer as a result, is all as old as the hills. Chapters correspond to the different phases of love, from anxious first dates to breaking up and making up, and from ghosting and rejection to settling down for the long haul. There are some gems here, by Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Thomas Hardy, AE Housman and Baudelaire, along with many others, familiar and unfamiliar, which are a joy to read, even if you’re not looking for love. A wonderful discovery for me was ‘My Wife’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Until August by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Anne Maclean

Referred to as “the lost novel”, this posthumously-published work by the Colombian Nobel laureate came out 10 years after Marquez’s death and against his own wishes. He was writing it while struggling with dementia, a condition his sons suggest in their foreword not only affected his writing but also his judgement as to whether the story was any good. Until August is an enjoyably zingy if improbable tale of erotic thrill-seeking tinged with bittersweet disappointment. Married, middle-aged Ana Magdalena Bach returns alone to the same Caribbean island by ferry every August to visit her mother’s grave and to hook up with a different man for a carefree night of dancing, flirting and casual sex. In a brilliant little twist at the end, both Ana and the reader discover the real reason why her mother chose to be buried on the island, and while this may not be Marquez at his best, his sons were
absolutely right to publish it.

The End of Drum Time by Hanna Pylvainen

My clearest memories of a winter trip to Finnish Lapland above the Arctic Circle is of eerie daytime darkness and silent, snowy landscapes; a place where the sun never rises above the horizon and farmers herd their reindeer in frozen pine forests. It’s within these extraordinarily beautiful surroundings that Hanna Pylvainen (an American author descended from Finnish farmers) has set her new novel. The year is 1851, and Lutheran minister Levi Lasse is trying to convert the Sámi reindeer herders to his faith. One day, one of the most respected herders walks into the small church, and as he stands before the pastor, there’s an earthquake. Coincidence or an act of God? The herder converts, leaving his son Ivvar to tend the reindeer herd, while the pastor’s daughter Willa falls for Ivvar and decides to follow him, leaving her family and faith behind. Part love story, part tale of clashing of cultures and faiths, what really stands out is the sheer lushness of Pylvainen’s prose.

Her Side of the Story by Alba de Cespedes, translated by Jill Foulston; afterword by Elena Ferrante

This welcome republication of Italian-Cuban writer Alba de Cespedes’s 1949 novel tells the story of Alessandra, based on the writer’s own life experiences. Alessandra has grown up in a crowded apartment building in 1930s Rome, observing her piano-teacher mother becoming increasingly disillusioned with her lot, and railing at the idea that her father wants her to be married off in traditional fashion. She rebels and falls for Francesco, an anti-fascist professor who introduces her to a whole new world of underground resistance and independence – all this set against a backdrop of wartime Italy during Mussolini’s rule. As much as this is a story of youthful rebellion and finding love, it is also the most wonderful portrait of women’s lives: the humdrum details of their daily routines, the quiet moments of nothing and the introspective thoughts about everything. Elena Ferrante, an early and ardent fan, has written the afterword.

Long Island by Colm Tóibín

Did you love Brooklyn? If so, you’re in luck because this sequel is a corker – a cracking story with liberal sprinkles of heartbreak and happiness throughout. Twenty years have passed since Eilis emigrated to America and married Italian plumber Tony Fiorello. They have two teenage children and live surrounded by his family in suburban Long Island. Life has seemed good, until the moment when an Irish man turns up on Eilis’s doorstep to tell her that Tony has been having an affair and impregnated his wife, and he will have nothing to do with the baby. Eilis decides to go home to County Wexford for her mother’s 80th and will inevitably meet Jim Farrell, the gentle barman she almost fell for so long ago. Tóibín has been described as “the consummate cartographer of the private self”, yet he is also a masterful chronicler of ordinary, everyday lives and remains one of our most engaging storytellers.

Cloudspotting for Beginners by Gavin Pretor-Pinney and William Grill

“Have you ever watched a cloud being born?” So begins this delightful and informative if eccentric picture guide to clouds by the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society (obviously). There are 10 main types of cloud, from the crisp-edged cumulus and clumpy-layered stratocumulus to the dull, drizzling altostratus and the sugar-sprinkled cirrocumulus. A pharmacist called Luke Howard classified these clouds in 1802. He thought if plants have Latin names, why shouldn’t the fluffy blobs in the sky have them too? We learn what they are made of, how they are formed, the many different six-sided ice crystal patterns they contain, how they move according to the direction of the wind, and more, but not too much more. With its soft coloured pencil illustrations, it is pure whimsy: the perfect present for anyone from a young child to your aged grandmother, although you may well want to keep a copy for yourself.

The Package Holiday 1968-1985, compiled by Jake Clark

This nostalgic collection of colour-saturated photos – think Martin Parr meets Slim Aarons – perfectly captures the time when cheap Mediterranean flights and package holidays came into fashion; when Brits no longer had to confine themselves to grey, rainy days on windswept beaches eating sand sandwiches. Suddenly it was all about the heat of the Spanish coast, and by 1972 a third of British tourists were holidaying there, which was around the time photographer Trevor Clark moved to Mallorca. He took thousands of pictures of holidaymakers, and his son Jake, who kept the archive after his father died in 2018, has curated this selection. From bouffant hairdos, clinging Speedos and baggy bikinis to couples playing mini golf and table tennis, these pictures evoke a time of seemingly naive innocence. The most striking difference to today’s holidaymakers, though, is that people appear to be looking at each other, not down at solo screens.

The Third Persephone Book of Short Stories

To celebrate 25 years of the wonderful Persephone Books, the publisher has brought out this collection of 30 short stories, all by women, all written between 1911 and 1996. In Turned (1911) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a married woman discovers her husband’s nasty little secret and, showing courage and resilience rare for women of her time, picks herself up and scores a victory. In A Faithful Wife (1963) by Diana Athill, a woman meets up with an old flame and finds herself torn between her moral conscience and her bodily desires. In Anniversary (1990) by Sian James, a man reflects on his tormenting love affair with his much younger neighbour, while politely hosting dinner parties with his wife. There’s lots here to dig into, many stories just a few pages long, offering perfect little tasters of fiction written by female writers of the 20th century both known and unknown. And as usual, the book boasts a lovely silver cover and coloured endpapers