BY NICO VREELAND
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, 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.
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
This novel requires a little more focus than Serena. It’s not as simple or as fast a read (it weighs in at 500 pages), but the reward for your effort is a hilarious, riveting ride through a cool, futuristic hellscape. The Gone-Away World is my favorite kind of sci-fi: the kind that can balance a funny, action-packed plot with a cerebral foundation, without letting either overly dominate the reading experience.
Gone-Away‘s premise presents a post-apocalyptic band of mercenaries as they try to save the world. Not the most original setting there’s ever been, but Harkaway packs so much creativity and invention into the details that the story never feels stale.
If you’re a fan of sci-fi, comedy, or action, you’ll almost surely love this book. However, swing by my review (link below) to make sure you’re not driven insane by Harkaway’s odd style. About 10% of readers seem to have a severe allergic reaction to it.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon is my pick to win the Nobel Prize in 2036. His novels have been getting better and better, and I liked The Yiddish Policemen’s Union even better than Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The only thing that might get in the way of Chabon’s Nobel bid is his commitment to creating compelling plots, which sometimes gets confused for Grisham-like non-literariness. For instance, Policemen is a murder mystery, which literary novels from Pulitzer Prize winners usually aren’t. However, it’s also the best murder mystery I’ve ever read, hands-down.
The premise is involved, to say the least: after World War II, the nation of Israel wasn’t created, and instead the U.S. government set up a settlement for displaced Jews in Sitka, Alaska. Fifty years later, the lease is about to expire and the Sitka Jews have nowhere to go. Set against this backdrop, Detective Meyer Landsman sets out to solve a murder that turns out to be a whole lot more.
Policemen isn’t particularly short, and its plot will require a little attention, but if you like detective stories and well-written character fiction, this novel offers the best of both those worlds. It might well be your new favorite book.
Find a used copy at Powell’s online here.
The Thought Gang, by Tibor Fischer
The Thought Gang is about a philosophy professor who starts robbing banks. Its structure resembles a stitched-together series of riffs moreso than a proper novel, but even so, it’s a thoroughly entertaining read.
There’s a convincing intelligence in Fischer’s writing, his characters are funny and compelling, and his riffs are endlessly entertaining
Much like The Gone-Away World, this book has a distinct style that defines the feel of the reading experience. It’s not for everybody, but if you like it, The Thought Gang is great fun. Here’s the first paragraph of the novel:
The only advice I can offer, should you wake up vertiginously in a strange flat, with a thoroughly installed hangover, without any of your clothing, without any recollection of how you got there, with the police sledgehammering down the door to the accompaniment of excited dogs, while you are surrounded by bales of lavishly-produced magazines featuring children in adult acts, the only advice I can offer is to try to be good-humoured and polite.
Reading this book is kind of like studying for a vocab quiz while you watch The Untouchables. Except add a whole lot of funny. It’s a quick, thrilling read, and a great introduction to an author that doesn’t get a lot of press in America.