Summer. Drooped in hammocks, mid-afternoon, our arms get sleepy with the weight of it, the book we can’t put down. And don’t have to. We’re on holiday. We’re in the back yard, we’re dozing on a beach towel. It’s…summertime.
In this story, we asked four writers from the Creative Writing program at UBC to take us back to a summer in their past and the book that made an impression on them. The writers featured here teach in the undergraduate and graduate programs but their influence doesn’t end in classrooms: they are known and loved by a readership that spans the globe and a desk couldn’t contain all the awards they have won for their work.
So, dive into these chapters and be sure to read the book recommendations at the end of each — you will have a reading list like no other for your days in the sun.
by Annabel Lyon
Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann
This six hundred-pager was my summer read in 1988, the year I was seventeen. My family was living in Calgary at the time, and I recall those days in a kind of time-lapse hindsight. I sat on the back deck in a scratchy vinyl and chrome lounger while around me day faded to night and bloomed back to day; the grass grew; the days heated and cooled; the trees budded, burst, and browned. I drank tea and turned pages while my family came and went around me — running errands, gardening, barbequing, occasionally sitting with me for a while, only to drift away when I refused to look up from my book.
I followed Oscar from Dublin to Oxford to his North American speaking tour (in a green fur coat!). I toyed with the idea for a novel: what if Oscar had given a talk in Vancouver, my childhood home, in 1882? (His Canadian pit-stops were in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes). I accompanied him to his London prison cell, convicted of sodomy in 1895, and to his final days of exile in Paris. (On his deathbed: “Either this wallpaper goes or I do”).
Elegantly I sprawled in my vinyl lounger, in truth skinny and depressed, despising hot, happy, wind-swept, cow-smelling Calgary for not being a Parisian drawing room, and despising my own early attempt at sentences for not being Wilde’s perfectly formed epigrams, those languid rapiers. Ellmann’s book captures the style of its subject. A childhood letter is described as “a hieroglyph of his adolescence”; of Wilde’s myth-making about his early education, Ellmann writes “Facts were for bending”. A biography that shares its subject’s wit: that’s a happy summer read.
Recommended Summer Reads
by Maggie de Vries
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
When I was ten years old, Sara Crewe—Frances Hodgson Burnett’s romantic, riches-to-rags-to-riches character—stole my heart. I read A Little Princess so many times that my copy fell apart and I now have a new copy (or new to me). It’s not one of those new editions, though, with a fat healthy Sara on the cover amid all her riches. No. My aunt let me take hers, identical to mine, a Puffin, almost fifty years old, with sketches by the brilliant Margery Gill. On its cover, Sara sits on the attic floor, forlorn, all in black, holding her hand out to her one friend in all the world, Melchisedec, the rat. (I loved wallowing with her in her misery, especially since she always rose above it and — spoil alert — I knew after the first reading that it was not to last for long.) My new copy has yellowed pages just like my old one did; it also has that lovely old-book smell.
Many children’s writers claim Burnett’s The Secret Garden as the book that had the most influence on them when they were young. That book begins, “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable looking child ever seen. It was true too.” In 1910, when the book first came out in serial form, Mary Lennox was a new kind of heroine: not pretty, not likeable. In making her story compelling despite (or because of) these circumstances, Burnett did something remarkable, and modern-day children’s writers like Katherine Paterson and Jean Little have found inspiration there. I’m not sure what it means that I like her story about the pretty and popular Sara Crewe better, but I do.
In preparation for writing this short piece and reading a passage aloud, I pulled A Little Princess off my office shelf an hour ago, flipped it open toward the end, started reading, and promptly burst into tears, instantly taken back. Allow me to invite you along on the journey.
The daughter of a wealthy owner of diamond mines in India, Sara arrives at an exclusive boarding school in London, where she is treated to every luxury, set apart from the other students. Miss Minchin, the school’s proprietor, takes an immediate dislike to Sara, recognizing in her someone much brighter and wiser than herself. When news arrives that Sara’s father has died in poverty, Miss Minchin banishes Sara to a life of servitude. Sara adjusts as best she can, her loving nature and her rich imagination serving her well. One evening, she invites another servant and a student to a celebration in her garret. The party is just underway, when in sweeps cruel Miss Minchin. This is where the short passage that I will read aloud takes place. I will be reading to you in the park down the hill from my childhood home. Given how many times I reread A Little Princess and how much time I spent in Locarno Park at Sasamat and Belmont, there’s every chance that this will be the second time I read these words in this setting.
You will be glad to hear that Sara awakens later on this very night to find her attic room transformed, and that that transformation is only the start to the magic that sweeps the reader (and Sara herself) through the book’s final 45 pages.
Recommended Summer Reads
by Nancy Lee
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I don’t actually remember the first time I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, mostly because my experience of reading the book eclipsed anything that might have been going on in my life at that time. I do remember, however, the second time I read it. My husband and I were travelling in India, navigating from east to west via train, buses and tuk-tuks, our backpacks sweat-glued to our bodies. After an overnight bus ride from Ahmedabad, through the first scorching then freezing desert, we arrived in the village of Bhuj, in the Gujarat, and immediately fell ill. We suffered through four distinct, yet overlapping infections, stumbling out of our dim, air-conditioned room into the 45 degree sun for a few minutes each day to make use of our limbs and breathe fresh air.
I had carried The Secret History in my pack, thinking I might reread it during the long wait times that travelling in India entails. I started up the book in that dim room, in a haze of constant discomfort, the jet-like whir of the air-conditioner burrowing into my brain, homesickness, and just plain sickness, making me teary. By pages in, I had forgotten about my illness, my body, the noise and strangeness of my new surroundings. The book offered escape and refuge, a place to recuperate.
Though written twenty-two years ago, The Secret History accomplishes something few books since have matched, the elusive genre hybrid of literary thriller. Centered around a group of students at a small liberal arts college, The Secret History has at its core the simplest of stories: murder. The book opens with the discovery of body and a compelling bit of storytelling: the narrator reveals that the victim, Bunny, was a friend, and that the narrator and others played a part in the killing, something he now questions and regrets. How and why Bunny was killed drives the novel, as do the many entangled relationships within the group itself. What elevates The Secret History above the usual commercial thriller is the depth of artistry Tartt brings to the novel. The writing is, in a word, impeccable. The characters are complex and nuanced. Tartt avoids the easy tricks and sleight of hand that can often ruin a promising thriller. This is a taut, page-turner full of escalating tensions that arise from characters fuelled by a desperate need to belong, then later, by a frenzied attempt at self-preservation. How do we distinguish between who we are and what we want, the novel asks.
The Secret History creates a world and characters that continue in one’s imagination long after the book is finished. I thought of the characters often as, revived, we continued our travels in India. If escape is the pinnacle of a great summer read, I can think of no better book.
Recommended Summer Reads
by Esi Eduygan
Stopping for Strangers by Daniel Griffin
I wonder how long it would have taken me to come across Daniel Griffin’s wonderful short story collection, Stopping for Strangers, had I not been part of an awards jury in the year of its release. This is a book that deserves to be known, and discussed, and passed from reader to reader like a delicious secret. I remember I had gone down to the beach, in order to find some space to work, and that it was an unseasonably hot day. As I worked my way through book after book, I found myself growing increasingly disgruntled with lax prose and false sentiment. Then I came across Stopping for Strangers. What a gem it turned out to be. In ten precise tales, Griffin shows an astonishing breadth of subject matter and a skillful narrative brevity. All of the stories are impressive; some are dazzling. I found the title story, for instance, an absolute marvel of understatement. In it, a pair of siblings set out on a journey to visit their grandfather before he dies. En route, they pick up a teenage hitchhiker brandishing a large black tattoo of a crucifix. The siblings end up at their passenger’s house, where his older brother insists that they stay for coffee. It is a masterpiece of suppressed tension, a subtle examination of trauma.
In “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale”, another standout, a long-standing estrangement between an artist and his protégé son is brought to an end by the son’s disclosure that he has cancer. It is a profound and haunting piece. And in “Promise,” a man takes his daughter to visit his disgruntled, recently divorced brother. Through a series of elliptical and utterly authentic conversations, we come to understand the violence of that relationship, and the ways it is reflected back upon the protagonist. The story’s ending is surprising, and devastating.
The masterful concision on display in Stopping for Strangers has led to inevitable — and deserving — comparisons with the work of Raymond Carver. But I’d insist nevertheless that Griffin is very much his own thing, and resplendently so.
The following is a passage from the “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale,” in which the father is describing a bit of his history, why he chose to become an artist.
Listen to Esi Eduygan story