Alternative Summer Reads – Poems, short stories and a novella

photo (1) So writing my top 5 Summer reads a couple of weeks ago got me thinking – there are other pieces of literature I return to every summer that aren’t novels, they are not necessarily beach-friendly and I wouldn’t recommend them heartily to one and all because unlike the novels, they occupy a nostalgic place in my heart and some are an acquired taste. However I am keen to feature them, almost as an alternative summer reading list, perhaps for those of you who don’t have the time to commit to novel reading this summer or if you have read all of the novels I featured and are looking for something different. These pieces of literature are not solely summer-themed but they unlock the general mood, they tap into a feeling; the carefree, languid drowsiness of a long hot day, the explosion of colours in nature, revealed by the ever-present sun. They are designed to be read again and again, each time revealing something new, or newly relevant. They capture the very essence of summer for me.

KEW GARDENS by Virginia Woolf 

This is perhaps my favourite short story of all time. Featuring Woolf’s incredible attention to detail and characteristic devotion to the minutiae of life, we follows a snail as it makes its way through a flowerbed in Kew Gardens. The scene opens out, from the flowerbed upwards, to follow the conversations of some visitors strolling through, focussing on one couple, Eleanor and Simon, who are struggling to come to terms with the events of the past and their loss of youth. We return to the snail at intervals as it attempts to conquer the obstructions in its path – in this case, a mountainous leaf. The reader is aware of the two events happening simultaneously, of life continuing apace regardless of the emotions of individuals.  All of this in just 6 short pages. This is Virginia Woolf are her absolute best –  her are some choice passages:

The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown circular veins, or, falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear.

How hot it was! So hot it was that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced once above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the novice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul.

This writing takes my breath away, I just never tire of those descriptions. Read this story, then head to Kew Gardens – you will never look at it in quite the same way. (See also TO THE LIGHTHOUSE – set in mid-September, it is filled with beautiful descriptions of the late summer heat and fading sun)

THE COLLECTED STORIES by Katherine Mansfield

It is too hard to pick just one from this incredible collection so I am going to feature my pick of the best. Katherine Mansfield was a masterly short story writer, dedicated to the form (she never wrote a novel) and she practised it to perfection. Many of her stories are set abroad – she suffered from tuberculosis and travelled extensively throughout Europe in her attempts to find a health cure – so they feel somewhat less english than Woolf’s. Katherine Mansfield is the only writer that Woolf ever claimed to be jealous of; a compliment of the highest order. It is good to read the two writers in tandem, they compliment each other very nicely.  I won’t ruin the stories by writing summaries of the plots, this would be reducing them too much, instead I have chosen a quote from each to give you a taster. Each story in this collection is a gift; open it, read it, savour it and then read it again.

BLISS

At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in richest, fullest bloom, it stood perfect, as thought becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or faded petal. Down below, in the garden beds, the red and yellow tulips, heavy with flowers, seemed to lean upon the dusk. A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after.

AT THE BAY

The tide was out; the beach deserted; lazily flopped the warm sea. The sun beat down, beat down hot and fiery on the fine sand, baking the grey and blue and black and white-veined pebbles. It sucked up the little drop of water that lay in the hollow of the curved shells; it bleached the pink convolvulus that threaded through and through the sand-hills. Nothing seemed to move but the small sand-hoppers. Pit-pit-pit! They were never still.

THE GARDEN PARTY

And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer.

THE DOVES’ NEST

Beyond the balcony, the garden, the palms and the sea lay bathed in quivering brightness. Not a leaf moved; the oranges were little worlds of burning light. There was the sound of grasshoppers ringing their tiny tambourines, and the hum of bees as they hovered, as though to taste their joy in advances, before burrowing close into the warm wide-open stocks and roses. The sound of the sea was like a breath, was like a sigh.

THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS by Philip Larkin

Some of you may remember this from A-level (it used to be on the syllabus, I’m not sure if it still is) but nostalgic or no, this is one of my favourite poetry collections. It is Larkin at his tragic and beautiful best. Larkin isn’t someone you would automatically associate with summer (in fact, I always picture him sitting at a small desk in the half light, wearing a tweed suit and listening to jazz) however this collection contains two poems which spell summer to me; the title poem THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS and AFTERNOONS. Here is the opening of the first:

That Whitsun, I was late getting away: Not till about One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out, All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense Of being in a hurry gone.

And AFTERNOONS? Well, I won’t ruin it for you.

MY SUMMER WITH MONICA by Roger McGough (illustrated by Peter Blake)

I was lucky enough to find a copy of this on the shelf of a holiday cottage I was staying in in Devon last year. They had a ‘take a book, leave a book’ policy, so I took this marvellous and rare little volume home in my suitcase. It is a long, rhythmic poem, designed to be read aloud or in one sitting and it documents the various stages of love in a relationship from the besotted can’t-make-it-out-of-bed stage (so all of the milk on the doorstep turns to cheese and the neighbours ‘think you’re dead) to the comfortable ‘old jeans’ and ‘cup of tea in bed’ stage. This edition features wonderful and witty illustrations from the great Peter Blake which really enhance the text. After some investigation it would seem that this book, first published in 1978, is now out of print so you may have to hunt it down in second hand bookshops – it’s absolutely worth the trouble.

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UP AT THE VILLA by Somerset Maugham

To finish, I thought I’d include this small yet darkly powerful novella from Somerset Maugham. Set high in the hills above Florence, young widow Mary Panton has taken a long holiday in Italy to recover and reassess her life. However she soon finds herself in a serious altercation involving her lover, her suitor and her confidante. This is fast paced, full of nail-biting suspense and will add a darker edge to your summer reading pile. At only 118 pages, it can be devoured in one sitting – perfect for an afternoon in the garden.

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