BY SEAN CLARK
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 Cleave
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.
Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
I’ve harped on why everyone should read Lolita a lot on the site lately so I’ll keep this brief. I bring it up constantly for good reason: in my opinion this is the best novel of the last 100 years, if not ever. The language contained within is second to none. If you find yourself on a beach where you don’t mind reading aloud to yourself (or to someone else, provided it’s not a twelve-year-old girl), I can’t recommend enough that you read Lolita aloud. Virtually every line is so well rendered that your tongue will almost dance in your mouth. You’ll taste the language, and it tastes good.
Despite the subject matter, the tone of the book is perfect for a beach read. The pacing plays into this greatly. The first half of the book is fancy and desire and lazy summer days, and the second half has a page-turning adventure, perfect to keep you reading just that much longer before heading inside from the beach.
The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)
This is my go-to beach book. I love the zaniness of early twentieth century Irish writing, and in this novel, O’Brien takes the cake. His writing shares many similarities with his much larger contemporaries such as Joyce and Beckett.
This book requires a little bit more mental exercise than the others on the list, mainly because it is so wacky, to the point of hallucinatory, that it can be confusing at points. It is wildly hilarious and adventurous though, so worth the extra effort. It’s hard for me to explain the plot without giving things away, but the story is a murder mystery cum existential romp. And it’ll make you wary of rusty bicycle pumps.
For all you LOST fans, season 2 (with Desmond pushing the button) borrowed so heavily from this book that they had a shot of the book on Desmond’s cot.
Being Dead, by Jim Crace
This one’s a bit of a morbid pick, so I’ll give you the premise right off the bat in case you want to skip forward. A middle-aged couple is murdered on a secluded beach, and the story follows the unfound bodies as they decompose. This is done with a detachment from emotion: while the descriptions of the decomposition are graphic, they are not prurient but more clinical and naturalistic, akin to a nature documentary or a crime scene investigation show.
The novel also jumps back in time, telling the story of the couple’s life together from the point at which they first met on the same beach where there bodies will decompose. This presents a nice opportunity for the reader to extrapolate the emotion from the living characters and assign value to the story of their deaths. It is a brilliant juxtaposition that really highlights the fragility of life. By showing us the living, thinking, feeling humans and the lifeless, decomposing matter that, too, is part of a system larger than the individual, Crace creates a unique and ultimately beautiful love story. Just don’t read it on an unpopulated beach.
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart
I wanted to include a good YA book on this list, as they provide a lot of the character and adventure that make for a great beach read. It was between this and Moribito, but ultimately The Mysterious Benedict Society, with its similarities to Roald Dahl seemed a bit more literary to me. Much like with Dahl’s books, eccentricities abound in this novel. When an evil genius uses a school for gifted children as a launching point for his diabolical plan to brainwash the entire planet, four youth (dubbed the Mysterious Benedict Society) are sent in as spies to sabotage the plans and save the world.
Each of the children has a unique gift (reasoning, memory, gadgetry, empathy) and together they solve plenty of puzzles and mysteries as the book progresses. The puzzles are fun and invite the reader into countless guessing and whodunnit scenarios. Beyond the titular four, there are many madcap and idiosyncratic characters in this book that really make it a treat to read. It is cleverly plotted and very well paced, and adults and children alike with have a fun time with the adventure before them.
So read away, dear vacationers, leave recommendations of other great beach books in the comments, or even write us a review.