Reading in the Heat: Ten Books with Exotic Settings

When it’s 90 before noon you might get claustrophobic in the air-conditioned house.

But if you get up early enough, you can sit outdoors, or at least on the porch, with a good book and a glass of iced tea.   You’ll feel like a character in a hot Southern novel, perhaps by Eudora Welty or William Faulkner (both were from Mississippi).

Personally, I like books with exotic settings when it gets this hot.  Here’s a List of Ten Favorites–and you might want to include Welty and Faulkner.

1.  Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.  In this exotic tetralogy, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the prose is moody and lush.   Over the course of the four books, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt.  Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed.Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery.   Still, they are classics and I love them!

2.  W. Somerset Maugham is one of my favorite middlebrow writers.  If you want to lose yourself in perfectly-wrought fiction, try his Collected Stories (Everyman’s Library).  I spent a week completely immersed in these addictive, tightly-plotted exotic stories, but since it’s been a while, let me quote the jacket copy: “In the adventures of his alter ego Ashenden, a writer who (like Maugham himself) turned secret agent in World War I, as well as in stories set in such far-flung locales as South Pacific islands and colonial outposts in Southeast Asia, Maugham brings his characters vividly to life, and their humanity is more convincing for the author’s merciless exposure of their flaws and failures.”

3.  Fans of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War will enjoy her tightly-plotted novel The Rain Forestpublished in 1974, set on an island in the Indian Ocean. If you are a fan of Graham Greene or W. Somerset Maugham, you will not be able to put it down.  This hypnotic story of an expatriate couple living on a jasmine-scented island ruled by the British is a trenchant examination of colonialism and culture clash.  You can read the rest of my blog post here.

4.  Do you crave light novels in the heat?  I highly recommend, both to women and men,  This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart.  Set in Corfu, this Gothic is a homage to The Tempest.  The narrator, Lucy,  an unemployed actress, joins her sister Phyllida on vacation in a luxurious villa in Corfu.  It’s gorgeous, but strange things are going on:  the maid’s son drowns on a boat trip with an English photographer;  someone shoots at a dolphin while Lucy is swimming near it in the sea; a moody composer, Max, who lives in a villa up the hill, is secretive and surly; and Max’s father, a retired actor who  believes Corfu is the setting of The Tempest, gallantly tries to hide a drinking problem.  And, believe me, there is much quoting of Shakespeare, even when crimes are investigated.

5.   The German writer Kurt Tucholsky’s novel, Castle Gripsholm (NYRB), translated by Michael Hoffman, is the charming story of a summer vacation in Sweden. Published in 1931, it begins with a series of short letters between the author and an editor who asks him to write a short love story.  Tucholsky says he would prefer to write “a little summer story.” And so the little summer story begins. You’ll enjoy the travels of a delightfully bohemian writer and his smart secretary girlfriend.  You can read the rest of my post here.

6.  Booker Prize nominee Alice Thomas Ellis’s trilogy,  THE SUMMER HOUSE, is beautifully-written and exotic.  In these very short  novels, the same events are observed by three different women (who form a kind of unholy female trinity).  In The Clothes in the Wardrobe, we meet the bride, Margaret, a passive young woman who had a love affair in Egypt with a young man who committed a murder. And now she is engaged to a middle-aged man she doesn’t love.  In The Skeleton in the Cupboard, her mother Mrs. Monroe has doubts about the imminent wedding as Margaret’s lack of enthusiasm for her son becomes apparent.  And in The Fly in the Ointment, Lili, the Egyptian femme fatale at the center of the action, is admired, loved, and sometimes feared.  Lili, who identifies with Lilith, the mythic first wife of Adam in the Bible, is determined to help Margaret (and herself) by doing whatever it takes.

7.  Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune is, to a large extent, about the politics of water. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.

8.  Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa.  Is Dinesen’s memoir Out of Africa, published in 1937, still appreciated, or is it dismissed as racist nowadays because she sometimes calls Africans “natives”?  Dinesen moved in 1912 to Kenya to run a coffee plantation with her syphilitic husband, and, after seeking medical treatment in Denmark for syphilis herself, returned.  After he left her in 1921,  she ran the plantation alone until 1931.  Her experiences are touching and vividly detailed: she gives medical treatment to the Africans, adopts an antelope, Lulu, and saves the life of Kamante, a young boy who becomes her chef and medical assistant.   She knows all about the cultures of the Kikuyu and the Masai, and tells lovely stories.  One of the most gorgeous memoirs of the 20th century.

9. Brad Leithauser’s new novel, The Promise of Elsewhere, is a brilliant academic satire about a professor on vacation.  Louie, the protagonist,  a professor of art history at Ann Arbor College (AAC), is distinctly unhappy with his job.  And his wife Florence, a third-grade teacher, has left him:  she and her lover were arrested for  indecent behavior, and are now, ironically, living in the Virgin Islands.  Tired of being the subject of gossip, Louie decides to spend the summer  traveling in Europe and Asia to look at his favorite architecture.   He abandons his itinerary, and the resulting madcap trip through Rome, the UK, Iceland, and Greenland made me laugh out loud.

10.  Grant Ginder’s new novel Honestly, We Meant Well is  an excellent literary beach read about a family vacation in Greece. Sue Ellen, a classicist, isn’t entirely happy that her family is accompanying her to Greece.  She’s annoyed with her philandering husband and grieving  the death of Christos, a former lover who ran the inn where they’re staying.  Her husband, Dean a writer and creative writing professor, is worried about his next novel and, unbeknownst to her, is cheating on her again.   Their  son Will, is in agony over a breakup with his boyfriend and has also plagiarized a short story. Then there’s  Eleni,  Christos’ daughter, about to sell the inn.  The novel is also a  kind of guide to Greece.  Delphi, Athens, Aegina…  Some serious issues, but overall great fun.


So Many Books: What I’ve Been Reading & the “Should-I-Bother” Pile


I’m very much enjoying a new summer novel, Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder.  It is light, realistic, well-written, and comical, a literary novel that can double as a beach read.  Ginder is a master of fast scenes and witty dialogue in this adroit portrayal of a  family vacation in Greece.  When Sue Ellen, a classicist, accepts a gig lecturing in Greece, she isn’t entirely happy that the family is accompanying her.  She’s annoyed with her philandering husband and grieving  the death of Christos, a former lover who ran the inn where they’re staying.  Her husband, Dean a writer and creative writing professor, is worried about his next novel and, unbeknownst to her, is cheating on her again.   Their  son, Will, is in agony over a breakup with his boyfriend and has also plagiarized a short story. Then there’s  Eleni,  Christos’ daughter, about to sell the inn.  The novel is also a  kind of guide to Greece.  Delphi, Athens, Aegina…  Great fun.

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan by Stuart Palmer. This quick American novel, first published in 1941, is a Golden Age Detective novel. The amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers, is a New York schoolteacher on vacation in L.A. When a Hollywood agent recruits her as an expert advisor for a film about Lizzie Borden, she starts finding dead bodies, beginning with the scriptwriter in the office next door. Rollicking adventures, humor, and suspense:  I do hope I can find other books in this Miss Withers series. In Otto Penzler’s introduction, he compares Miss Withers to Miss Marple. This book is in the American Mystery Classics series, chosen and introduced by Otto Penzler.


L.A. Woman by Eve Babitz. I loved Babitz’s self-described confessional novel, Eve’s Hollywood (my post is here), but put aside L.A. Woman.  Some of it is a little bit coarse. For instance, the narrator Sophie’s dog, Tango, has a kind of affair with her on the bathroom floor.  And a friend gives Sophie advice on how to “give head”: “Spit,” Ophelia concluded, “That’s the whole trick to giving head. Just spit.” Okay, it’s funny but… not that funny. Should I bother?

Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. All of Georgette Heyer’s novels are elegant, witty, and very much alike. I enjoyed the first 285 pages of Cotillion, then lost the book behind a chair.   Eureka!  I vacuumed!  Heyer’s novels are billed as Regency romances, but they’re more like Regency comedies.  I  guarantee the girl will get the guy.  Should I bother?

The Magus by John Fowles.  This is always mentioned on summer reading lists. Last summer I read the first 300 pages.  It’s haunting and boring at the same time. Should I pick it up again?

What are you reading and what’s on your “Should-I-Bother” pile.

Summer Reading: In My Armor, on a Quest

It’s Memorial Day, the first real day of summer.

We are obsessed with summer reading.  What will we peruse?  Classics or light books? Some prefer the Modernists; others the Victorians;  others enjoy cute beach romances with cover art depicting Adirondack chairs. And I would too if I hadn’t already lost one of Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket novels—at the beach!

Summer is also an ideal time for long-term projects.  You can read The Tale of Genji (did it), The Death of Virgil (spoiled my  idea of Virgil, who is portrayed in the first 30 pages as a dying man ogling a boy fan),  the worst of Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit), or Robert Harris’s  Cicero trilogy (which I’m not as crazy about as most people).

The worst of my beloved Dickens.

But this year I have a far, far tougher quest: catching up with at least three books published in the last few years.

I’m in my armor, on my horse. I’ve got some books.  Alas, the regrettably simple style of 21st literature is often colorless and dull. Blab, blab, blab: I like the classics. But this summer I’m going partially for new “pop,”  new “literary, and “new” nonfiction.  Maybe I can even read four new books.

Before I go on to trash new books,  let me recommend some brilliant new books I’ve read this year. 

  1. Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a brilliant feminist retelling of Beowulf.
  2. Brad Leithauser’s The Promise of Elsewhere, an academic satire in which a professor goes rogue on vacation in Europe.
  3. Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day, a novel about two couples’ complicated relationships.
  4. Pam Houston’s graceful collection of essays, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.
  5. Vita Nostra, a pretty good SF novel by Marina and Sergey Dychenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey.

And here is a list of mediocre new books I’ve read parts of but then rejected.  This doesn’t mean they’re bad.

  1. The Heartland: An American History, by Kristin L. Hoganson. This  history of the midwest by a professor at the University of Illinois has been well-reviewed—and kudos to Hoganson for taking on the Midwest! But it seemed narrow, concentrating almost entirely on research in Illinois, which doesn’t take into consideration the differences between groups of immigrants in different states or problems endemic to different landscapes. She does make interesting parallels between the Kickapoo Indians and itinerant pioneers.  But ye gods!  She devotes an entire chapter to the breeding of livestock.  That’s where I gave up.
  2. All the Lives We Ever Lived, by Katharine Smyth. How could I not love a bibliomemoir about Virginia Woolf? But Smyth is too richy-rich for me. I tired of her father’s “varnishing the teak of the cockpit” of their yacht.  I abandoned this book after 30 pages..
  3. David Means’s Instructions for a Funeral, a collection of short stories. Too verbose for me.
  4. Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room, a historical novel about Hedy Larmarr, the actress, and a Barnes and Noble Book Club selection. Actually, I finished this, but found it formulaic.

So on with the quest for great new books!   The most-promoted new books will not necessarily be the best.