So, Christmas has left us with the traditional slump into ill-advised resolutions about the gym, shunning chocolate for sultanas, or whatever nonsense January seems to dictate. In the spirit of self-improvement – and not involving potentially failing a diet – a few modern classics between missed yoga lessons is definitely advised. Particularly recommended for the summer, and the festive comedown, is literature that’s easy-going but brilliantly engaging from start to finish (avant-garde doorstops can wait ‘til at least February – I’m looking at you Thomas Pynchon). Here are a few titles that are forgivingly under 500 pages and are (relatively) contemporary but would certainly look great to read on the bus. (Note: if you received The Luminaries for Christmas, perhaps save this list for New Year’s 2015.)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
This freewheelin’ philosophy journey mixes timeless musings with a healthy dose of Soviet struggle, perfectly crafted characters, and some great adulterous drama. Expect lots of whimsical asides that have the intellect of a TED talk, but with more humour and less sparky Californian optimism. This is the most painless way to absorb some 20th Century history, soviet aesthetics, and Nietzsche, and may well be the first Czech author on your shelf.
Jazz, Toni Morrison
A Nobel Prize winner not to be sniffed at, Morrison’s bleak and enthralling tale of 1920s Harlem unfolds in the bluesy rhythm of its title. Jazz begins with the death of a husband’s young mistress and his wife’s shocking appearance at her funeral. From there, the poetry, crackling dialogue and heartache of the couple’s former life in the Deep South is a great start to exploring Morrison’s more unflinching works, such as Beloved and Sula.
Herzog, Saul Bellow
Moses Herzog is a struggling academic, neurotic mess, and a car-wreck when it comes to women. Through ramblings, flash backs and hilariously impotent unsent letters, readers become acquainted with Herzog, a crusty professor with the neurosis of Woody Allen. Along with the daily travails Herzog often fails at, he also gets caught up with Chicago gangsters, his cartoon-villain of an ex-wife, and existential woes that never fail to quench the intellect.
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland
The novel that popularised the term that launched a thousand advertising pitches and editorials, Generation X has a youthful ennui that, even after twenty years, is so zeitgeisty it hurts. The novel follows a group of twenty-somethings telling each other stories that range from comic book ditties to poignant fantasies about loss and space travel. The particular highlight is the novel’s dealing in cultural types, pre-internet memes, and footnotes that sociologically record phenomena ranging from ‘Dorian Graying’ (the unwillingness to gracefully allow one’s body to show signs of aging) to ‘Strangelove reproduction’ (having children to make up for the fact that one no longer believes in the future). Coupland’s sharp observation and satire is the best means of navigation through the hyper-reality of the Internet age.
Flush, Virginia Woolf
For anyone who has a seen The Hours or tried to read The Waves, you might not believe that Woolf does actually have a sense of humour, but she certainly does have her moments. This novel is the biography of Flush, a beloved pet spaniel, frequently mentioned in the letters of Victorian poet Elizabeth Browning. This short and sweet novel of Flush’s nuzzlings amidst the human dramas of London and Italy captures English snobbery. Flush’s awareness that he is the right breed for English nobility, and the neurosis of his owner allow for the perfect combination of Woolf’s haughty language and mischievous humour.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Nice try, Hunger Games, but Atwood got there first with a dystopian work that focuses on female experience amidst the hollers of mass suffering and depravation. An ultra-conservative military dictatorship overthrows the government and strips the female citizens of their rights and finances. Our oppressed protagonist, Offred, is forced to be a ‘handmaid’, a class of women assigned to have children by government officials in order combat declining fertility rates. Atwood combines the political with the personal by mixing Offred’s suffering with the daily tension of living with her Master and his own ageing wife. Like any good dystopian fantasy, the horrors of the regime unfold as our heroine looks for liberation and gets entangled with the secret police.