What to read on holiday in the US, France and Germany

In the first of a series, we recommend some destination-specific titles for summer trips abroad, with help from our correspondents

Wed, Jul 9, 2014, 11:11

United States

Stoner, John Williams (1965)

Reissued in 2003 with an introduction from John McGahern, this forgotten classic relates the experiences of William Stoner, a kind and intelligent university professor who confronts life’s injustices with a rare dignity. Leaving behind his farming background in Missouri to teach English literature at a state university, William’s valiant efforts to overcome an unhappy marriage and to ward off attack from an embittered colleague are told in beautiful, memorable prose. A book that keeps you thinking about its characters and their relationships long after the final full stop.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)

New York city in the wake of a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a frightening place to be, especially for Theo Decker, who has lost the one person in the world who cared for him. With his beautiful mother dead, Theo brings the reader on a nightmarish journey through contemporary America as he gets passed around from one home to the next. Vivid in its evocation of New York, Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is equally impressive on the desert landscape of Las Vegas and the pitfalls that await a pitiful, lost teenager left to his own devices in Sin City. At 784 pages, the ebook version is recommended for the beach.

Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton (2014)

The title of Hillary Clinton’s new memoir refers to the difficult decisions she had to make in her recent role as secretary of state. Widely viewed as a precursor to a 2016 presidential campaign, it comes as no surprise that the book focuses on the successful and potentially political rewarding calls of her tenure. Chief among these is the military raid that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Due out on June 10th, this is Clinton’s second memoir, following on from Living History in 2003, which charted her early life and her time as first lady.


Journey to the End of Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)

Journey to the End of Night was Céline’s first novel and made him an overnight literary success. Renowned for his prose style, Louis-Ferdinand Augustes Destouches combined colloquial and simple vocabulary with complex plots and meandering narratives. This flair is evident in the huge scope of his debut, which relates the journey of antihero Ferdinand Bardamu from the first World War to colonial Africa to postwar America. Bardamu’s misadventures have had far-reaching influence in the literary world, from Will Self to Kurt Vonnegut to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” With one of the most captivating openers in literary history, Albert Camus’s The Stranger consistently tops lists of favourite French fiction. Concerned with existentialism and the philosophy of the absurd, it might not be the lightest of beach reads but the trial of a young shipping clerk in 1940s Algiers makes for an engrossing story about the individual’s struggle in the face of societal confines.

Dreams of My Russian Summers, Andreï Makine (1995)

The first book to win both the top French literary prizes of the Prix Goncourt and Prix Médicis, Dreams of My Russian Summers tells the story of a young boy’s experiences with his French grandmother in the Soviet Union of the 1960s and ’70s. It is set in the town of Saranza on the border of the Russian steppe. Charlotte Lemonnier’s memories of her French past contrast with the Soviet present and enable her grandchildren to explore themes of identity and heritage. Russian-born Makine wrote the manuscript in his adopted French but initially had to pretend it was a translation to get the book published in Paris.


The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, Heinrich Böll (1974)

The sensationalism of tabloid journalism is scrutinised in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, a masterful commentary on the media, law and ruling classes set in 1970s West Germany. Political panic and media hype over terrorist organisations result in personal freedoms being quashed, with an innocent housekeeper, Katharina Blum, hounded by authorities and the media over her relationship with a radical. Narrated in the first person plural, the book unfolds as a series of confidential reports on the decline of the eponymous Blum, an everywoman who is pushed to the brink.

Every Single Minute, Hugo Hamilton (2014)

Hamilton’s fictionalised account of the last days of his friend, the writer and broadcaster Nuala O’Faolain, takes the form of a short trip to Berlin where narrator Liam wheels the terminally ill Una around the city’s museums and historical sites. Surrounded by monuments commemorating past death and destruction, both characters discuss their own pasts and how certain events came to shape their lives. Setting his roman à clef in Berlin recreates the trip Hamilton took with O’Faolain shortly before she died, but it also enables the characters to explore their subjects and themselves at a distance.

Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie (1999)

A definitive history of Berlin from the Bronze Age through unification, Richie’s ode to the German capital evokes the spirit of a city that has seen many incarnations. From the grandeur of Imperial Berlin to the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic to the depravities of Nazi Germany, Faust’s Metropolis offers an interesting and well-written account of a city that has been at the centre of global change for centuries. Quoting the critic Karl Scheffler in her opening chapter, Richie sets out her stall on the amorphous capital: “’Berlin is a city that never is, but is always in the process of becoming.”

With thanks to Simon Carswell, Lara Marlowe, and Derek Scally for their suggestions. Book recommendations for Spain, Brazil and Australia will feature next in the series.

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