W. Somerset Maugham •
The Moon and Sixpence •
Nobody can evoke South Sea Island locales quite like Maugham. The oppressively hot air stirred ever so slightly by ceiling fans with long wooden blades. Wicker furniture on shady verandas. Tossing palm trees. Hammocks and whispers. (Cinema buffs may know that Miss Sadie Thompson, a Rita Hayworth film set in Samoa, was based on Maugham’s short story “Rain.”)
Sixpence was inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, who fled a respectable middle-class existence to pursue his passion for art. But Maugham makes the story completely his own, imbuing it with a flavor you will never find in pure biography. Maugham traveled widely and observed keenly, and we get the benefit of both here. What moves Charles Strickland to throw away everything and start painting? Why does Blanche Stroeve drink Lysol (or whatever it is)? Sail to Tahiti to find out.
When you get back, it’s time for a journey to China (The Painted Veil). Or maybe you prefer India (The Razor’s Edge), or a spy’s-eye view of Europe during World War I; the Ashenden stories are a fictional account of the writer’s experiences working for British intelligence. Wherever Maugham takes you, you can be sure of a ripping good story. And don’t be put off by his literary reputation: He got the reputation because people love reading what he wrote.