I don’t understand beach reads. And I’m not the only one. There’s no universal consensus about the category, though the marketing tends to revolve around those books popularly considered disposable, unserious, or at the very least, books “you don’t mind getting wet.”
Last year, I toted Anna Karenina along with me — it got soaked, and I abandoned it in an AirBnB in Dubrovnik, Croatia, after I’d finished reading it. It lasted nearly the whole trip and left a gaping, souvenir-sized hole in my suitcase; it was perfect. So as much as I’d like to dissolve the beach read label entirely, I must also admit I have a type: I want a meaty, absorbing book that takes me further into a vacation by connecting with the cultures that produced it. I want a book that can’t be disposed of, one that will take me somewhere entirely new.
What I really want is to decouple the notion of summer reading as a lifestyle marker of class or gender. If the “pursuit of intellectual betterment” feels inaccessible or off-putting, I would like to propose at least the pursuit of expanding our emotional connections.
In a cultural climate where the limits of empathy are increasingly under a microscope, forging cross-cultural connections feels like a pressing task. Much has been made of the relationship between fiction reading and empathy, but what happens when the limits of our worldview are bounded by the English language? While linguistic diversity is growing in Canada, the majority of Canadians still speak only English at home, and comparatively few books are translated into English. If, as José Ortega y Gasset proposes, reading in translation should transport the reader into the language — and therefore the perspective — of the author, then reading translated works may be one of the best ways to expand empathy beyond the boundaries of language.
I’m not going abroad this summer, at least not physically. I’ll be staying in Canada, with only my books to pull me to other times and places. While in recent years, I’ve focused on keeping up with new releases, this year I’m fixated on atmosphere and transportation, in a mix of old favourites and new-to-me classics from around the world.
I won’t tell you to read Elena Ferrante, because you’ve probably heard that before. Instead, I will be delving into the work of Elsa Morante, a possible inspiration for Ferrante’s pseudonym. Arturo’s Island, originally published in English in 1959, has been published in a new translation by Ann Goldstein (translator of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels). The novel promises a mix of the remote island setting steeped in Morante’s preoccupation with social issues and the spectre of war.
One of my favourite themes in European literature is that of movement and fluidity, the running sense of unity of purpose amidst myriad diverse pockets of culture. The ubiquity of trains and boats support transcontinental journeys by characters who switch language mid-conversation. Last year’s Man Booker International winner, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk takes traveling and travelers as the subject of its interconnected musings, making it an ideal choice for the vacation headspace. This year’s winner, Celestial Bodies from Oman’s Jokha Alharthi, has an English edition but has not yet been published in Canada.
In my opinion, no contemplation of Pan-European lore can be complete without Dubravka Ugrešic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Once labeled a witch herself and driven into exile from Croatia, Ugrešic’s take on Baba Yaga explores the shifting nature of popular folklore.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not a translation, but it will take you to a place that only briefly existed: Biafra, a West African state founded in 1967. While the brutality of recent war may not make a particularly appetizing subject for vacation, Adichie contrasts the brutality with sumptuous descriptions of pre-war food and luxury, giving her vision of Biafra the aura of a lost dream. Adichie has referred to the war as a shadow over her childhood.
There are no beaches in Kristen Lavransdatter and many more Christmases than summers, but if you start Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset’s oeuvre now, it may take you until winter to finish it. Set in Medieval Norway, the book follows the titular Kristen from childhood until death, focusing on her tumultuous love affair and marriage to Erlend Nikulaussøn. Tiina Nunnally’s translation, focusing on plain, stripped-down language, presents a change in philosophy from the first English translation that cut large portions of the text and enforced stiff, archaic language absent from the original Norwegian.
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is slight in length but packs a heavy punch in both atmosphere and psychological investment. The story of a vacation gone terribly wrong, the novel’s Spanish title closely translates to “rescue distance,” a recurring concept instantly familiar to parents of young children and terrifying as it becomes repeatedly destabilized. Fever Dream is so unsettling that I sometimes hesitate to recommend it, but I’ve found myself repeatedly drawn back to its tantalizing surrealism.
I’ve spent much of my life moving around, and as a recent settler on unceded Secwepemc territory, I want to learn more about the land I live on. In a summer steeped in fiction, Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws by Marianne and Ronald Ignace is the only history on my list, but in many ways it feels similar to the others, reaching out to add a new dimension to a place in which I’m still mostly an outsider. For better or for worse, Kamloops feels the most like itself in summer, the climate wants to have its stories told. It can feel intimidating to contemplate a 10,000 year history I know nothing about, but also comforting and necessary to reach back and hear the tales of the land I now call home.