Literary Beach Books, Part 7

Here’s the 7th and final part of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.

I’m in the process of moving, and many of my books remain packed. So I was going to do these recommendations sans-text. But, after giving it more thought, I felt that would be quite lazy and irresponsible of me. Using the Internetz, I took the middle path: for each book, I went to the Amazon.com “Surprise Me!” feature and chose a line from the randomly selected page to give you a sense of what the novel’s about.

Lunar Park, by Brett Easton Ellis

lunar-park1What happens when Brett Easton Ellis moves to the suburbs? Very, very, bad things. Think Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road meets Stephen King’s The Shining.

The plot is pretty simple: our narrator, Brett Easton Ellis, recovering addict and literary celebrity, lives in a haunted house with a semi-famous wife and a twelve year old kid whose friends keep disappearing. The ghosts are many: his career, his fictional characters, a stuffed animal called a Terby, his own father. As Brett’s mid-life crisis intensifies, so do the night terrors. We turn the pages to see how he survives.

For my money, this is Ellis’s greatest novel to date. It’s also my favorite “literary novel” of the past few years. I wish I’d never read it so I could read it again this summer. Like all of Ellis’s books, really, it’s a modern day horror story, characters tormented by emptiness, confusion, nihilism, Prada, ambition, family, expectations and, this time around, actual ghosts.

Surprise Me!: “It was an indictment of not only the way of life I was familiar with but also—I thought rather grandly—of the Reagan ‘80’s, and, more indirectly, of Western Civilization at the present moment.”

PlatformPlatform, by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq is one of those authors who specializes in pissing people off. I don’t know why the easily offended take the bait every time—some folks must get as much joy from righteous indignation as the provocateurs get from provoking it. Over the years, I’ve recommended this book to a number of people. The response is either “Thanks, a masterpiece!” or “You’re a sick bastard for even thinking I would like this.” So be warned.

The narrator is a French bureaucrat, the caustic Michel Renault. Michel thinks that the only way Western men can find pleasure in sex is to find submissive Asian women in Thai massage parlors. Michel sort of realizes he’s wrong after he meets Valerie, a successful and rich middle-aged French chick.

Beneath the book’s controversies (the above mentioned sex tourism, as well as Islam, orgies, the death of Western civilization, etc.), Platform is a powerful love story between Michel and Valerie. The two find each other, and within each other they find the limits of pleasure. The book pretends to take the tone of what one could call a typical French post structuralist “modern life has no meaning so smoke another Gauloise” attitude. But that’s Houellebecq being clever. The book falls on the side of meaningfulness, just not where we’d expect. (At a sex resort.) I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it’s worth reading to the final page. And it takes place on the beach.

Surprise Me!: “She was getting quite angry too; I could sense that it wouldn’t be long before she mentioned human rights.”

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

absurdistanI read Absurdistan slowly because I wanted to savor the humor. The book is that funny, especially if you’re ever had the misfortune of spending time in any country with a ‘Stan suffix. (Or an ‘aq syllable, for that matter.) It’s essentially a send up of all the cliched and way too serious emigre and exile novels you’ve ever read. At the same time, it’s a hilarious tale of America’s cluelessness and excessive meddling, the massive stupidity and greed in the local Absurdsistan-like cultures that make them ripe for meddling, and the uber-rich Russian oligarchy.

It’s the Catch-22 for the age of American Empire. (I just noticed that the Washington Post review also compares it to Catch-22, so my observation here is less than original. A few more Googles tells me that everybody (except Michiko Kakutani) seems to love the book. Despite the daily NYT pan, it was named by the Times as one of the Ten Best in 2006.)

I didn’t need “Surprise Me!” for this one—I knew my favorite line memory. “During the thirties and forties, Stalin had killed half my family. Arguably the wrong half.”

n172970Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

In Old Man’s War, retirement is when the action starts. The brilliant conceit: Earth, engaged in a number of intergalactic battles, meets its recruitment goals in the Colonial Defense Forces by signing up retirees who’ve agreed to a genetic treatment that makes them superhuman kick-ass warriors. The treatment also allows them to live for generations more (as long as they don’t get killed). Our hero is John Perry, an everyman of sorts, if you will, who finds himself in a series of classic Starship Trooperesque situations.

It’s the best science fiction book I’ve read in the past few years, and I’d put it in my personal top ten sci-fi novels of all time. Yes, all time. Plus, it’s got a bunch of sequels, so you can lose yourself for a good week or two in Mr. Scalzi’s universe.

Surprise Me!: “Viveros waited for the cease-fire order, walked over to the puddle that was left of Bender, and started stamping it furiously. ‘How do you like your peace now, motherfucker?’ she cried as Bender’s liquefied organs stained the lower half of her legs.”

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Literary Beach Books, Part 6

Here’s part 6 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.

Having just moved from Boston to the Atlantic coast of Florida, my ideas of beach reading will have to be redefined. Until now, the term has been synonymous with “vacation reading”books I want to bring with me to places that are warmer and happier than all the cloudy northern cities I’ve called home. It’s not the beach itself that matters, it’s the atmosphere. Las Vegas, situated squarely in the middle of Hell, is where I’ve done the lion’s share of my beach reading. Now, with actual beaches just down the block from where I lay my head at night, every book on my shelves has the potential to be a true beach book.

Here are five that made the trip with me:

The Fool’s Progress, by Edward Abbey

14642914The great Ed Abbey called this book his “fat masterpiece.” Fat it is, checking in at just under 500 pages. Read them all. In order. And then read them all again, because this is my all-time favorite novel, and it very well may become yours, too.

Published in 1988, this is Abbey’s swan song, a book he poured himself into for years. It begins in “the dim inane of Tucson, Arizona,” where Henry Holyoak Lightcap, whose wife has just split on him for the last time, raises a .357 Magnum and blasts away at his loud-running Frigidaire.

Henry, with nothing left to lose and hiding a dark secret inside himself, decides to embark on one final trip back home to Virginia, an odyssey that takes him from his beloved Southwest through the middle of the country and into the Appalachia of his youth. In his dying truck with his dying dog, Henry stops to say last goodbyes to friends along the way as he reflects on a life full of love found and lost, authority scorned at every turn, and an abiding love for and awe of nature.

This book will make you laugh and cry at the same time. This is as close as Abbey got to autobiography, so if you’re fascinated with the real-life character, then you’ll feel the same about Henry Lightcap. I cannot recommend this book enough.
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Literary Beach Books, Part 5

Here’s part 5 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.

Like Eric, I’ve never read at the beach. I am easily distracted by rocks and shells and washed-up jellyfish, so all of my beach visits have found me walking around, swimming, and walking around some more, with precious little time to sit and read. Instead, I prefer a park for my summer retreats. Parks are no less distracting than beaches, I suppose, but I find breeze and grass and trees and fountains and strolling couples more relaxing than the beach’s perpetually crashing waves, and therefore more suitable for a few hours of casual reading. These, then, are my five Literary Park Books, no blanket or swimsuit required.

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

steve-martin-book-cover-webSteve Martin’s memoir of his development and eventual success as a stand-up comedian is a tell-all, but with the author’s craft, rather than sex or various other scandals, as its subject. Scandals aren’t ignored, but they’re offered as subplots to the larger story of how Martin grew from quaint vaudeville-esque gigs at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm to the top-selling comedy act in the world, and why he eventually turned that success into a film career, leaving stand-up behind forever.

And though Martin’s voice is not particularly warm as he recounts living amid his parents’ fraught living dynamic, doomed romances (including Dalton Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi) neither is it bitter or vindictive. Rather, Martin comes across as merely curious about this aspect of his life and career, and seems to share the reader’s surprise when the mélange of magic, absurdist humor, and banjo tunes that made up his act gradually connects with an audience. If you’ve ever wanted to be a comedian, or understand the mechanics behind the five-minute sets you enjoy on late night talk shows, this is essential reading.
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Literary Beach Books, Part 4

Here’s part 4 of our Literary Beach Books series.  Find the other parts here.

To be honest, I’m not much of a beach reader, more of a beach sleeper, wave watcher, and occasional bocce competitor.  I always bring a book with me for the moments when I’m awake and haven’t yet decided which ice cream novelty I want from the snack shack, but my selections for these outings tend towards short stories, essays, and poetry, books I can consume piecemeal and ponder as I slip in and out of consciousness with the surging and receding surf.

If that sounds like something you’d like to take to the beach, then read on; if not, read on anyways.  You might get some good ideas for reading you could do any old time, and I’ll throw in a novel at the end just for good measure.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard

likeyoudunderstandJust a quick glance at the acknowledgements should be enough to let you know what kind of a collection you’ve got in your hands when you pick up Like You’d Understand, Anyway.  You’ll find books and articles on geology, Greek tragedy, the Chernobyl disaster, the Yeti, and the French Revolution.  In short: it’s the perfect book for a reader with a wild curiosity about everything.

These pages are full of fascinating, factual gems, but the appeal of the stories goes far beyond satisfying simple curiosity.  Shepard turns a sharp intelligence on his subjects and their challenges.  He renders even his most misguided or monstrous narrators with a markedly human touch, creating characters as compelling as the bizarre and sometimes all too familiar situations in which they find themselves.  Each of the eleven stories is told in the first person, and each one left me feeling like a total stranger had just confided in me, offering up the best and worst for which he could be judged.

Full of dry, brutal humor and sincere sympathy for people facing the limits of their own knowledge and ignorance, this collection makes you think about things like cruelty and responsibility at the same time that it leaves you wondering that an earthquake or a scorpion could have ever really been so big.
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Literary Beach Books, Part 3

Here’s part 3 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.

Last summer I thoughtlessly brought the book I happened to be reading along with me to the beach. When a friend asked what my book, Blood Meridian, was about, instead of saying “It’s pretty much the most violent and disturbing book about murder I’ve come across since American Psycho, another terrifying and gruesome book I’ve read for some reason,” I told her it was a book about cowboys and Indians fighting around the Mexican border just before the Civil War.

Then, laying on my towel and trying to read McCarthy’s prose despite the sun, the sand, the hot weather and the good-looking people wearing almost nothing a few feet away, I wished I actually had brought the book she’d imagined from my answer -a fun, easy read- along with me instead. I think I was ill-prepared for beach reading because to me “beach book” means “stupid book.”

A beach book is a summer block-buster starring Nicholas Cage, it’s top 40 radio, it’s reality TV. It’s something you enjoy knowing full-well that it’s stupid, as a kind of indulgence. For some reason I can watch a stupid move and listen to stupid music (in doses) and I can stomach a little reality TV, but reading a bad book just makes me angry.


I’m sure people who have strong opinions about movies, music, and television have a similar problem. So I’m presenting a few “beach books” as I define them: books that are fun to read, can entertain without a requiring huge amount of concentration, and are still “literary” enough to be enjoyed by someone who likes real books, too.

The first two beach book picks I have are actually selections from two authors’ catalogs:

Graham Greene’s “Entertainments.”

Graham Greene was such a snob that he even condescended to himself.
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Literary Beach Books, Part 2

Here’s part 2 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.

On my last vacation, I happily trucked through all four Twilight books, but I don’t consider them nor most other airport bookstore type books “literary.” When I read literary books, I tend to carry a pencil and write notes to myself in the margins, but that’s not too practical at the beach.

So the literary beach books below are somewhere in the middle: smart, but the not type that demands unbroken concentration. These books all have strong characterization and a great sense of adventure; they have that magnetic, I-want-to-get-back-to-my-book factor. Finally, all five of these can be finished during one day at the beach. And away we go…

Little Bee, by Chris Cleavelittle-bee

Little Bee really blew me away when I read it a few months back. It is accessible without too much complex language, yet at once seems incredibly insightful. This is a tough balance to achieve, and much of the credit goes towards the careful back and forth of two narrators with two very different and shifting outlooks on life.

Beyond the two narrators, the rest of the characters are rendered nicely, and the young boy of the family (called Batman because he refuses to remove his Batman pajamas since his father’s death ) is both adorable and heartbreaking–and funny, constantly mis-conjugating verbs in front of his editor mother.

A novel about a Nigerian refugee going to live with two Britons she met during a brief and incredibly traumatic event, the subject matter can be tough to handle. The book casts an intense yet not quite accusatory glare on the mentality of the west toward Africa, and vice versa. It certainly opens the readers to some close inspection of just the sort of lives we live and how our ideas of misery and terror are so different from those of our fellow humans. Mostly due to the strength of Little Bee (the character) as a narrator, the book retains an uplifting and moving outlook rather than succumbing to the dreariness you might expect.

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Literary Beach Books, Part 1

Find the other parts of our Literary Beach Books series here.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be doing a series of recommendations for (semi-)intellectual summer reading. Each of these posts will suggest four or five enjoyable page-turners that won’t leave you feeling intellectually lobotomized like certain popular bestsellers.

So if you like thoughtful, well-written novels, but still want to relax with a ripping good yarn this summer, tune in Mondays for the next few weeks to load up on great summer reads.

Here’s the first installment.

serena-202x300Serena, by Ron Rash

Serena is a straightforward novel about a logging camp in Depression-era North Carolina. Full of violence (both natural and man-made), betrayal, manipulation, and life lived ruthlessly, it features more than its share of can’t-put-it-down.

Rash doesn’t particularly try to be funny or entertaining, and he doesn’t use stylistic or structural gimmicks. Instead, he creates simple, serious drama and a driving, addictive narrative.

Suffice to say, if you’ve got a tolerance for violence and a fond memory of classic dramas like Lord of the Flies, this novel will drag you through its pages.

You can read my full review of Serena here.

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