"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.
I loved A Moveable Feast, but I can tell you some of the issues I've had with other Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises. I got to the end of the book, and I was like, "Are you kidding me? That's IT? Nothing freaking happened! No one changed! Nothing's different? What the hell?!"
Having said that, he's growing on me. As is William Faulkner, and that is truly terrifying.
I love a good long book that I can lose my escapist self in. So, I'm not sure if these are my top 5 (though Garcia Marquez's would make it), but here are five good 'uns:
Love in the Time of Cholera - Garcia Marquez (I like to save 100 Years of Solitude for my annual winter reading)
I Know This Much Is True - Wally Lamb (I know, I know. Oprah. But I just fall in love with the characters and Lamb does such a good job of making each character human - in fact, maybe to a fault as there are some minor characters that I could've known less about - that the 900 pages flies by like that!)
Oryx & Crake - Margaret Atwood (It's science fiction! It's a love story! It's a mystery! It's the Beach Read Trifecta!)
And ... that's three.
Oh, and can I add Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett? Well, yeah, I guess I can.
Yeah, I was meh on The Sun Also Rises, too. Though I have this feeling I might like it more now, since I've developed a fondness for movies in which nothing happens.
I love Marquez, too. And you're the only other person I've met who liked I Know This Much Is True. For some reason, Lamb irritates the bejeebus out of everyone I know.
And hey, I've been wondering about Winner of the National Book Award, but you're the first person I've heard from who's read it. It's that good? I'm going to have to grab a copy.
Only one from me, but since we're on the subject of Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea. For a beach read, I don't think it gets much better than that.
Wally Lamb is my favorite author EVER! He only wrote the 2 books though, right? Any suggestions on similar books. And by the way I adore Oprah's suggestions--85% of them have become some of my favorite books.
I need to get back into reading. I really do.
But I just wanted to say that I loved Tender is the Night. I loved it so much. I also loved the gossip about F. Scott Fitzgerald's penis. It made me giggle...in a totally adult way, of course.
I'm not sure how I can describe Winner of the National Book Award other than its completely ironic without being winky? Willet is genius at avoiding sentimentality in some potentially murky sentimental bogs. What attached me so deeply to the main character was that Willet gave us a woman who seemed to be the closest thing to Adler's Fully Functioning Human Being on the outside and struggled with the idea that she was still just as human as the poor slobs she surrounded herself with.
Plus, the thing had me laughing out loud several times (which I rarely do in a novel, especially one that Hollywood would hardly consider a "comedy").
Oh, and does that mean you're a fellow Lamb fan? Whatever Lamb's stories lack (which isn't much ... it's more that he's seemed to have stuffed them too full to a fault), he makes up in some really rich characters.
Cool. I'm putting Winner on my wishlist. "Made me laugh out loud" is the best endorsement I could ask for.
As for Lamb, let me put it this way: a couple of years ago, the mister and I were camping in the Rockies and went on a wet rainy hike up the mountains, where I fell and almost broke my ass. Between my aching butt and I Know This Much Is True, I didn't sleep a wink that night. It was that compelling.
I don't know what it is about Hemmingway I don't like - maybe it was that I tried to read him at too young an age to appreciate him (13, I think). It was The Sun Also Rises, if I recall correctly. I know he's one of my mother's favourite authors from her youth, so maybe I'll take your suggestions and try again.
As for my favourite summer reads:
Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry, which, technically, is three books, but I'll count it as one. It's the first time I've ever had to put down a book and walk away so I could cry about what happened to one of the characters.
Tanya Huff's The Keeper Chronicles, which, again, actually three books, but they're not high literature and and pretty quick reads. Funny and clever - talking cats and cute handymen is all I ever want in a fluffy summer read.
His name has been mentioned here before, but Christopher Moore's Fluke reminds me of sitting at the kitchen table, gasping for breath as I read passages out loud to my mother. She finally read it this summer, and loved it.
Elmore Leonard's Touch is one you don't see often. It concerns a young man with a stigmata who can heal people, and how different people percieve him and want to exploit his abilities.
Poppy Z. Brite's Plastic Jesus is fiendishly hard to find, but worth the effort - I read it and changed my mind about ever reading her again (I didn't enjoy Lost Souls, but have loved everything else of hers I've read). The story follows a Beatles-like band and asks "what if?"
So odd: Just today a woman in my book store was raving about Garden of Eden, and I was surprised that I had never heard of it. She said it's her favorite Hemingway, and encouraged me to look it up. Now I've heard of it twice in one day. I'll have to put it on my list!
Yeah, Rebecca. I think The Sun Also Rises has that effect on a lot of people. The thing with Hemingway is that, despite the fact that he seems to write simply, I don't think he's accessible to younger people. I'm positive you were a super-smart 13 year old, but Hemingway's show-don't-tell way of writing means you have to extrapolate A LOT from what his characters say and do. I think this level of extrapolation requires a fair bit of life experience (egad, I hate that expression -- I'm sorry!) to do well. On the plus side, it's what makes re-reading his books every few years so incredibly rewarding; I find new things in them every time.
Thanks for all the recommendations! I'm making a list and checking it thrice.
Yay, Ms Draggletail! That's so cool. I love me some serendipity, especially when books are involved.
Well, if you're looking for laugh-out-loud, could I also recommend A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole?
Ignatious J. Reilly is probably one of the best comic characters I've ever read. Ranking right up there with the errant knight Don Quixote. His rants against everything from homosexuals to hot dog vendors to capitalists makes for prime page turning fun. There were several times I was afraid that my valve would close from laughing (you'll understand if you read it).
I loooved Confederacy of Dunces. I picked it up when it first came out, mainly because I found Toole's backstory so weirdly compelling, and I think I read it in just about one sitting. And you're right: I did laugh out loud.
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