A child removes a stone from the shoreline, drops it into shallow water, and then spends ten minutes searching for that same stone. A seagull makes off with an entire sleeve of Ritz crackers. Parents order children to put on sandals, rub in sunscreen, be careful with the giant inflatable orca. A couple in their 80s debates whether someone’s daughter is a reasonable person, and after 15 minutes they conclude that she is not. There is a sense of time standing still, of the beach having witnessed such conversations for decades, possibly a century, possibly more. Waves lick the shore, seagulls commit larceny, kids amuse themselves according to invisible logic. And people read books.
Here are some beach reads for all types of people and beaches. Feel free to use “beach” as a stand-in for any place you can comfortably splay in casual dress while slowing your sense of time to the speed of a sunscreen blob traveling down a single outstretched leg.
The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto
Fiction, August 18
Sometimes you need to be a pervert. Not sexually — though that too, sure — but in the sense of being perverse, of behaving in a way that is contrary to accepted practices. Maybe you need to make an inappropriate joke in mixed company or gobble a can of frosting for dinner or, as one man recently did, fart at a police officer. Sometimes a person gets sick of trying to be a role model for herself and the only way to break the fever is by doing a Wrong Thing with full intent. In that spirit, here we have the antithesis of a “summer book.” And by antithesis, I mean that this is not a novel that will be adapted into a movie featuring Rachel McAdams.
Instead, it is a gripping account of three teenagers who become radicalized and wind up at a jihadi training camp in Iraq. The teenagers converge for reasons that range from economic alienation to social-media indoctrination to existential despair to misogyny to lovesickness. One of them is English, and two are Pakistani; one is rich and two poor. They go to school and to the mall; they sneak booze and fret over sex; they exhibit the universal teenage traits of idealism, vulnerability, and belligerence. And then, in nuanced and historically contingent ways, each of the teenagers comes to map his or her sense of indignity onto the narrative proposed by a charismatic fundamentalist charlatan. The suspense of the book — and it is very suspenseful! — is embedded in the question of what will happen to each character’s soul. Pretty high-stakes for a beach book, but I read it in a Jimmy Buffett-branded chair (“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”) on a sandy shore nonetheless. The novel is radical in both the traditional and “whoa dude” senses of that word.
RIYL: Kamila Shamsie, believing that nostalgia is a disease, the TV show I May Destroy You, calm determination, quiet desperation
The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka
Fiction, August 25
A feckless man in Seattle impregnates two women and then bounces. He goes on to become wealthy in a specifically Pacific Northwest manner — something to do with tech, something to do with exploiting natural resources, possibly a combination of the two? Anyhow, one of the mothers also decides to leave, having decided that she’d rather join a zen monastery than raise a baby. The remaining mother raises both of the babies in the best way she can, which is fairly bad. The feckless man eventually remarries and invites his now-adult daughters to his wedding, promising that he has something to give them. The “something” is not money but a piece of information that leads to a twist-riddled misadventure and explodes everything the women thought they knew about themselves and the world. (Nice one, Dad.)
As they unravel the family secrets, the two women work on fishing boats and eat from XXXL-sized buckets of peanut butter, sleep in cars and go to parties where they aren’t welcome, muddle through swamps and get drunk in Panama City, meet strange men in deserts who quote Metallica lyrics like they’re scripture. This is a novel that feels like hitchhiking: The route is unpredictable but fated and exciting, with an air of treachery. If you relate to the idea of desperate people doing desperate things for reasons only partly clear to themselves, you will find it thrilling.
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud
Fiction, August 4
You deserve to be wrapped in the embrace of a tender, loving novel. You deserve to be coddled by a book of satisfying bulk, enclosed in a cover of rich candy hues, written by a person whose author photo shows her using a chair in one of the jauntiest ways to use a chair, which is backwards.
Here we have a tale of three oddniks in Trinidad. The oddniks are a widow, her moody teenage son, and her boarder. A dreadful secret haunts the household, and when the teenage son discovers it, he absconds to New York City. More secrets unfold as the tale slides back and forth between two islands of starkly different shape and flavor.
Despite plot elements of violence and self-loathing and loneliness, this is a book of exultant sweetness. It is also a book that is filled with exciting language usages and phrases that are either specific to Trinidad or nonspecific to Trinidad but new to me or both. Like using “thief” as a verb (you can thief a beer from someone else’s fridge) or “pain” instead of “hurt” (“My arm started paining me bad”). If you’re worried that you’ll never find your soulmate, a character might tell you that “every bread has its cheese.” Splash around in a pool of curious characters and pick up a new vocabulary while you’re at it.
RIYL: Andre Aciman, free samples of food, twists of fate, gossip, Derek Walcott
WHY DON’T YOU …
Have a SILENT dialogue with an invisible person about imaginary things?
Read the Janet Malcolm book about a woman who was sent to prison for being ANNOYING?
X-ray the most opaque nation on earth with a novel set in NORTH KOREA?
Plunge into the icy waters of a suburban pool in Connecticut? Now, this is a classic summer book: It’s got a rich divorcée, a NAUGHTY PROFESSOR, a scheming financier. (Plus: It was a recommendation from a reader!)
Transform your green thumbs into a pair of GLEAMING EMERALDS? (Note: This book requires a preexisting interest in plants.)
FREAK OUT! Le freak, c’est chic. Freak out!
Pair your sleepless nights with a book about sleepless nights? You know what they say: If you can’t beat ’em, read about ’em!
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