Ten Books to Read Outdoors: From the Silly to the Sublime

I have my faults as a human being, but I am not a reading snob. Do I enjoy historical romances? I do if they’re by Jane Aiken Hodge, the daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken! What about frivolous books that inspire one to rush out and join a literary society? Yes, give me Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, please! And am I averse to cozy mysteries? Of course not! I adore clever cozies. All such books are distractions from our enemy, Climate Change Super Heat.

If you like to read in the yard, at a cafe, in a park, or (gasp) at the hot beach, here are


1 The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis. The Landmark edition is a gorgeous book, chock-full of footnotes on the foot of the page, a readable translation, and many, many maps (sometimes two on a page). I pored over the maps in order to figure out who was marching where and conquering whom, and there is so much marching and conquering I became a map expert. And then the mosquitoes and other insects swooped in, I slapped them and bug blood spattered on a map, and I went indoors to read the rest. But if it’s not buggy, by all means read it outside.

2 The Complete Mapp & Lucia, by E. F. Benson. These six books are so charming and droll that I have read them thrice or more. Benson’s gossipy characters are immensely ridiculous and unpredictable. Lucia is a pretentious snob who pursues “art for art’s sake,” pretends to know Italian, practices simple pieces on the piano to impress her friends, and hatches Machiavellian plots in two adorable villages, first Riseholme, where she and her charming gay acolyte, Georgie, compete with rivals to stay on top of trends like yoga and vegetarianism, and later in Tilling, where Lucia meets her match in the redoubtable Miss Mapp.

3 Jane Aiken Hodge’s Watch the Wall, My Darling. Part historical novel, part Regency romance, this fast-paced novel provides a double fix for readers of Georgette Heyer and Poldark. (N.B. Two of the characters are actually named Verity and Ross.) There is smuggling, saucy dialogue, the threat of an invasion by Napoleon, and a wounded Frenchman hidden and nursed in the musty tunnels of the abbey upon which Tretteign Grange is built. Christina Tretten, an American whose father recently died, is visiting his estranged family in England. Her grandfather is a despot and her aunt Verity often has the vapors, but Christina learns to manage her relatives. When she fires the lazy housekeeper and takes over the housekeeping, her aunt is appalled by her unladylike bossiness, but her grandfather is amused. Christina also takes it coolly when she discovers on her first night that Ross is leader of a local smuggling ring. There is much excitement, with soldiers trying to break up the smugglers, and a rather sensible romance which keeps this from becoming overwrought.

4 Robert Heinlein’s Double Star won the Hugo Award in 1956.  Heinlein explores an idealist’s struggles to change society  and defeat a group of fascists who plan to take over and dominate the people of other planets (like Martians).  Heinlein is a master of plot but is mostly a novelist of ideas.  Here, he attacks racism and examines the effect of politics on morality and philosophy.  The unusual thing is that Heinlein does it at one remove–the star of the novel is an actor and an impersonator of a politician who becomes committed to the cause.

5 Jane Langton’s Emily Dickinson Is Dead. I enjoy Langton’s light Homer Kelly mystery series, and this is my favorite. Homer, a homicide detective who is now a Harvard professor, is keen on attending an Emily Dickinson symposium, but of course dead bodies turn up, and there are many suspects. I vividly remember one character, an Emily Dickinson Museum tour guide who eats a lot of doughnuts, is obese, and had been jealously in love with her professor, who is dating at undergrad. At Goodreads many well-meaning reviewers are furious because of this obese character’s image. I am well aware of fat phobia, but I am not unfamiliar with the concept of enjoying doughnuts. Many of the thin characters in this book are also what my mother would have called “real pills,” so it balances out.

6 E. Nesbit’s feminist horror novel, Dormant, is reminiscent of Angela Carter’s chilling fairy tales. This weird retelling of Sleeping Beauty crossed with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins as a comedy, with a group of charming young people gathered to debate socialism, women’s suffrage, and capital punishment.  Pretty, talented Rose is in love with impoverished Anthony, but when he inherits money, a title, and an estate, he becomes obsessed with his ancestor’s research on the elixir of life and discovers a dead woman in the laboratory. This is far from Nesbit’s best book, and it is wildly uneven, but there are delightful passages and a surprise ending.

7. P. G. Wodehouse’s hilarious books are ideal for reading outdoors. They will not tax your brain. Tropes repeat, but never boringly:  there are cases of mistaken identity, impostors, savvy butlers, thefts of jewelry, prize-winning, pigs, and accidental engagements. Wodehouse’s stock characters are stuck in an Edwardian comedy, or possibly slightly latertime frame, and their pitch-perfect dialogue is hysterically funny. I especially love the Blandings books, where someone is always trying to steal the prize pig, called the Empress.

8 New Hope by Ruth Suckow. Ruth Suckow, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, was born in Hawarden, Iowa, in 1892. She chronicled life in midwestern small towns in her gentle novels and stories. In New Hope, not much happens, but that is the case with all her books. It begins with arrival of a new minister’s family, who, until their new parsonage is ready, are staying with the Millers, a bustling, sociable family. There are vivid scenes of women frying chicken for church suppers, buggy rides, visiting farms, flirting with beaus, making fudge, and much information about the town’s water supply and the importance of the railroad station to the economy.

9 White As Snow by Tanith Lee. This is an exquisite retelling of the Persephone myth, with a nod to the fairy tale Snow White. Terri Windling commissioned it for her Fairy Tale series, which includes Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Patricia Wrede’s Snow White and Red Rose.

10 If you are a fan of cozies with likable, realistic characters, try Patricia Moyes’s Murder à la Mode, set in the 1960s at a London fashion magazine.  Moyes used to work for Vogue, so she knows fashion and magazines.   When somebody puts arsenic in the assistant editor Helen’s tea, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates–and it helps that his niece has been interning there. One of the most charming mysteries in the Henry Tibbett series!


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