"Beach read." It's a phrase that probably makes you cringe. It makes me cringe, but every time some dorky women's magazine's publishes its top 10 beach reading list, I'm powerless to avert my eyes.
But it wouldn't be summer, and this wouldn't be a site dedicated to reading, if at some point I didn't give you my unsolicited recommendations in that questionable category known as "beach reads." And here they are:
Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
You may not have heard of this novel. Even some of my literature profs had never heard of it. Written right before his death and published posthumously, this is the novel that made me revise my opinion of Hemingway.
The story takes place over one long summer along the French and Spanish Rivieras, before these became fashionable hotspots, and it chronicles the increasingly bizarre relationship between newlyweds David and Catherine in a fascinating character study that demonstrates Hemingway at the top of his powers.
It's an incredibly subtle book; I've probably read it a dozen times, and I find new meaning in it every time. The thing you have to bear in mind with Hemingway is that he's extremely reluctant to tell you what characters are thinking. Instead, he presents you with what they say and what they do, and leaves you to interpret their motivations. (Sounds kind of like real life, huh?)
All that aside, Garden of Eden is worth reading just for the fantastic descriptions of eating and lazing on the beach.
Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I should be up front and let you know that this is my absolute favourite novel of all time. I've read it so many times that now I'm forced to ration my readings so that I can pace them out over my lifetime. If I get sick of this book before I die, then life will no longer be worth living.
The novel starts out on the French Riviera, again before it became a fashionable summer destination, and, similar to Garden of Eden, it tells the story of the complex relationship between members of a glamorous couple: psychiatrist Dick Divers and his heiress wife Nicole.
It's a fabulous, hedonistic, and intelligent novel, written as only Fitzgerald can write.
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
Nobody ever accused Steinbeck of being glamorous or hedonistic, God love him. I'm normally not all that big on memoirs, but Steinbeck's account of his road trip around America at the age of 58, accompanied by his standard poodle Charley (the only dog in the world capable of pronouncing the letter "f"), in a custom-built camper called Rocinante, will have you reaching for your car keys.
Steinbeck drives a circuitous route across America and back in 1963, a time of massive social change. Along the way, he sees the sights, meets the locals, and ruminates on such subjects as mobile homes, highways, desegregation, and the fact that you can never go home again.
This book is funny, poignant, and still relevant... and written in that effortless and artless way that is the cornerstone of my love for Steinbeck. There aren't many writers I wish I'd met. Steinbeck is one of them.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Now, I know what you're thinking: Kerouac? She's got to be kidding.
I know, I know. But I've always said that anyone who's serious about reading has to go through a Kerouac phase (and an Ayn Rand phase, and a pretentious 19th-century French novel phase, etc.). And then you have to put that phase behind you. Because, dude? Forty-year-olds who go around styling themselves after Dean Moriarty or espousing the virtues of selfishness? Are creepy.
Kerouac can be annoying. Non-Asian Buddhists can be annoying. Ergo, big chunks of Dharma Bums are annoying. That's why, when you're re-reading it, you skip those bits and flip ahead to the excellent passages on hitchhiking, mountain-climbing, camping and cooking on the road. They make me want to hit the road with nothing but my backpack and some canned beans.
(In fact, this book inspired Acquilad and I to invent a meal we like to call "hobo dinner," comprised of Kraft Dinner and canned beans. Hoo boy... they don't make 'em more white trashy than us.)
Anyway. Don't bust your piggy bank to buy this book. But if you see a copy at a yard sale for a buck, give it a try.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
What? More Hemingway? What the hell am I doing? But here's the thing: nobody captures the joy and out-there-ness of being young and hungry -- for food, for ideas, for new experiences -- the way Hemingway does. And to me, these things are all synonymous with summer.
I've already pimped this collection of anecdotes about Hemingway's early years in Paris, but it bears repeating. Even if you don't usually like Hemingway (and if so, I'd be interested in finding out why, because I've forgotten why I used to hate him), A Moveable Feast is just that: a feast of delectable treats (come on... gossip about F. Scott Fitzgerald's penis! It doesn't get much better than that!) that will leave you wishing for more after you turn the final page.
So, yeah. There you go. I confined myself to five picks because I thought it would keep me judicious. What are your top five all-time favourite summertime books? Give mama some sugar.