Get Tan With Nazis, Emperors, Monks: Classic Beach Books

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A portrait, dated 1909, of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy at his home in Iasnaia Poliana.

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Source: FILES/AFP/Getty Images

A portrait, dated 1909, of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy at his home in Iasnaia Poliana. Close

A portrait, dated 1909, of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy at his home in Iasnaia Poliana.

Source: NYRB Classics via Bloomberg

"Kaputt," by Curzio Malaparte. Close

"Kaputt," by Curzio Malaparte.

Source: NYRB Classics via Bloomberg

"The Siege of Krishnapur," by J.G. Farrell. Close

"The Siege of Krishnapur," by J.G. Farrell.

Source: Harper Collins via Bloomberg

''Wolf Hall,'' by Hilary Mantel. Close

''Wolf Hall,'' by Hilary Mantel.

Travel back in time for dinner at Krakow’s castle with Hans Frank, the mass-murdering, Chopin-adoring governor general of most of Poland. Think the thoughts of the emperor and poet Hadrian (“Animula vagula blandula”). Visit Montparnasse, Berlin, London, the Republic of Gilead. These classic novels take you there:

Kaputt” by Curzio Malaparte: An Italian war correspondent with access to the highest echelons of the Nazi and Fascist elite. It’s a novel, but clearly based on events, people and atrocities so horrific, no one could make them up. Frau Frank gives him a memorable tour of the castle after dark. (New York Review Books, $16.95)

The Siege of Krishnapur” by J.G. Farrell: As Indians begin to rise up against their British overlords, a siege commences that is inexplicably funny in its desperation. (New York Review Books, $15.95)

Funeral Games” by Mary Renault: When Alexander the Great dies in 323 B.C. in Babylon, his vast empire comes apart. It’s one of many novels Renault wrote with a fine understanding of ancient -- and often ambisexual -- Greece. Then read Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent reminiscence in the New Yorker about his correspondence with Renault and his visit to Cape Town where she, improbably, spent her life. (Vintage, $16.95)

Roman Emperor

Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar: A book that gets inside the troubled Roman emperor’s head -- an excellent combination of pure history, narrative commentary, love, war and death. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16)

Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel: Won the Man Booker Prize, and for good reason, charting with meticulous detail the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who became the most powerful operator at Henry VIII’s court. (Picador, $16)

The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco: This murder mystery, set in the 14th century, combines a whodunit with history, maps, literature and treasure. The movie with Sean Connery is spellbinding in its depiction of desperate peasants and ambitious monks. (Mariner, $15.95)

No Roses

Jennie Gerhardt” by Theodore Dreiser: Dreiser’s story of a semi-destitute young woman’s attempt to make a life for herself is a stark and deeply engaging reminder that all was not opera, roses and Washington Square. (Pine Street, $26.95)

Mephisto” by Klaus Mann: A thinly veiled, delicious character assassination of actor Gustav Grundgens, who sold his soul to Emmy and Hermann Goering but wasn’t really damned for life. His career continued after the war. See the stunning movie with Klaus Maria Brandauer as a talented man tormented by guilt and corrupted by ambition. (Penguin, $16)

Memoirs of Montparnasse” by John Glassco: Not quite Fitzgerald or Hemingway (“A Moveable Feast”), but a fresh depiction of Paris in the 1920s when the author was just 19. (New York Review Books, $15.95)

Moll Flanders” by Daniel Defoe: A diverting morality tale set in the 17th century, the book follows an upwardly mobile woman as she discards husbands and children in multiple continents on her way toward financial security. (Modern Library, $11)

Famed Italian

The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni: A couple is ripped apart by corruption, dictatorship and the plague in 17th-century Milan. Arguably the most famous Italian novel ever written. (Penguin, $18)

Vanity Fair” by William Makepeace Thackeray: Charts the intricacies of the British upper class before and after the Napoleonic Wars, focusing on the roller coaster ride of a not-so-well-off striver named Becky Sharp. It spoils nothing to say that even if she doesn’t quite make it, it’s a great journey. (Modern Library, $9)

War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy: If your beach trip is a long one, here’s a stirring account of Napoleon’s invasion and the families caught in the epic upheaval in which, after great battles, a fire and heroic deeds, Russia is saved. Listen to the recording of Prokofiev’s gripping adaptation conducted by Valery Gergiev. (Vintage Classics, $20)

Legal Foibles

Bleak House” by Charles Dickens: A sprawling book with this many characters can only involve one thing: money. The most engaging novel centered on the foibles of the British legal system ever written. (Vintage, $10)

The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood: In 1985, the clever Canadian envisioned a time when a military theocracy took over America, renamed it Gilead and turned women into ceremonial brood hens. Probably not required reading in Texas. (Anchor, $15)

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor and James Tarmy is a writer at Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are their own.)

To contact the writer of this review: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net. James Tarmy in New York at jtarmy@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Billy at dbilly@bloomberg.net.

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