In a few weeks, I’ll be taking a summer break through most of July and August. Naturally enough, I’ve been assembling a pile of books to relax with during the downtimes when I won’t be working on a Major Writing Project that is — sigh — at least three years overdue.
First of all, to honor its centenary, I’d like to reread James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which was published 100 years ago in 1922 and takes place entirely on one day in 1904 Dublin, June 16. If you’ve always shied away from tackling this modernist masterpiece, let me recommend Frank Delaney’s “Re: Joyce,” a podcast that analyzes this richly layered text sentence by sentence. Delaney, who was born in County Tipperary, possessed one of those gorgeous Irish voices, coupled with a genial conversational manner, that make listening to him an utter joy. Alas, he died in 2017 when he had explicated only the first third of the book.
I’m also hoping to revisit another classic, Colette’s two-part “Chéri” (1920) and “The End of Chéri” (1926), now available in a carefully attentive new translation by Rachel Careau, who also provides a substantial introduction. I first discovered these mildly shocking novels — about a self-centered pretty boy and the older, worldly wise cocotte who loves him — when I was teaching in a lycée in Marseille, but that was a long time ago, and my French has since grown rusty. So, I’m eager to try Careau’s English version, perhaps with an occasional glance at my ancient Livre de Poche editions.
Some years ago, Johns Hopkins University Press reissued, in paperback, a six-volume boxed set of Giacomo Casanova’s “The History of My Life,” translated by Willard R. Trask. Reading it proved to be a revelation. While chockablock with (consensual) sexual encounters, the memoirs also chronicle one get-rich-quick scheme after another, as this picaresque rogue dodges the law throughout most of 18th-century Europe, including Turkey, Russia and England. Certainly, no reader ever forgets Casanova’s escape, through a combination of ingenuity and daring, from the notorious Venetian prison known as the Leads. Still, there’s always been some question about the veracity of this tireless con artist (multilingual pun intended). Happily, Leo Damrosch, the author of superb books about Rousseau, Swift and the world of Samuel Johnson, has just brought out “The Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova” (Yale). I can hardly wait to start it.
James Grady’s latest thriller, “This Train” (Pegasus), takes place almost entirely on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” as it speeds across the country from Seattle to Chicago. Since I’ve already zipped through the first chapters, I know that the passengers constitute a cross-section of American types — visualize an updated version of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims — whose actions, often enigmatic and ominously unsettling, are relayed in fast-moving, syncopated prose, each sentence like a knife-thrust. Of course, it is a truth universally acknowledged that suspense novels set on trains can’t help be anything other than terrific, and this one involves conspiracy and possible terrorism. Needless to say, any fan of Grady’s “Condor” adventures will be eager to climb onboard “This Train.”
Why isn’t Guy Gavriel Kay better known to general readers? In seductive prose, Kay’s historical fantasies transport the reader to a Renaissance Europe that never quite existed and rival the works of George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb for sheer excitement. Having much enjoyed Kay’s “Under Heaven,” an intricate novel of political chicanery in 8-century China, I’m now looking forward to “All the Seas of the World” (Berkley). Right now, I simply know that the plot involves two assassins in a half Italianate, half Arabic Mediterranean world of intrigue and romance, but then who needs to know more? Advance reviews have used the word “masterpiece.”
Ever since reading Gigi Pandian’s “The Locked Room Library” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine — it was shortlisted for several awards — I’ve been eager to try her longer fiction. Published this past spring, Pandian’s “Under Lock & Skeleton Key” (Minotaur) inaugurates a series focusing on the Secret Staircase Construction Company, which specializes in creating hidden compartments, sliding bookcases and the like for its clients’ homes. In this initial whodunit, a young illusionist named Tempest Raj discovers the body of someone she once knew inside a wall that has supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Pandian proclaims herself a disciple of John Dickson Carr, so I’m eager to see how her new book compares with the master’s locked-room classics.
Let me at least mention two more attractive-sounding summer escapes. J.H. Gelernter’s “Captain Grey’s Gambit” (Norton), set during the Napoleonic era, is the second outing for British secret agent Richard Grey. In this one, an international chess tournament provides the background — and that alone pretty much sells the book for me. As an admirer of David Stacton’s breathtakingly brilliant “The Judges of the Secret Court,” I was drawn to Paul Witcover’s “Lincolnstein” (PS Publishing), which also focuses on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth. But in this fantastic reimagining, Lincoln is “saved” through radical surgical techniques like those employed by one Victor Frankenstein. As it happens, though, the president’s new brain has been excised from the body of Jim, the longtime Black friend of a Union intelligence officer named Finn, who is soon ordered to hunt down and destroy the escaped monster. Given such iconic characters, how could a fantasy novel be more American, especially when it also addresses the themes of race, inequality and love?
Every summer reading list needs at least one “rediscovery.” A while back, I wrote about “Living Alone,” Stella Benson’s strange, almost surreally comic 1919 novel about magic and witchcraft. Now, Recovered Books has republished Benson’s “Pull Devil, Pull Baker,” irresistibly described as “the oddest book you will ever read.” It purports to be the reminiscences of an aging Russian con artist, who speaks in broken, and oddly spelled, English. But is this self-proclaimed “Don Juan of Our Days” real? It’s hard to tell, but I suspect that’s part of the fun.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said “Ulysses” was published on June 16, 1922. It was published in February of 1922. This article has been corrected.
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