BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Here’s part 4 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.
To be honest, I’m not much of a beach reader, more of a beach sleeper, wave watcher, and occasional bocce competitor. I always bring a book with me for the moments when I’m awake and haven’t yet decided which ice cream novelty I want from the snack shack, but my selections for these outings tend towards short stories, essays, and poetry, books I can consume piecemeal and ponder as I slip in and out of consciousness with the surging and receding surf.
If that sounds like something you’d like to take to the beach, then read on; if not, read on anyways. You might get some good ideas for reading you could do any old time, and I’ll throw in a novel at the end just for good measure.
Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard
Just a quick glance at the acknowledgements should be enough to let you know what kind of a collection you’ve got in your hands when you pick up Like You’d Understand, Anyway. You’ll find books and articles on geology, Greek tragedy, the Chernobyl disaster, the Yeti, and the French Revolution. In short: it’s the perfect book for a reader with a wild curiosity about everything.
These pages are full of fascinating, factual gems, but the appeal of the stories goes far beyond satisfying simple curiosity. Shepard turns a sharp intelligence on his subjects and their challenges. He renders even his most misguided or monstrous narrators with a markedly human touch, creating characters as compelling as the bizarre and sometimes all too familiar situations in which they find themselves. Each of the eleven stories is told in the first person, and each one left me feeling like a total stranger had just confided in me, offering up the best and worst for which he could be judged.
Full of dry, brutal humor and sincere sympathy for people facing the limits of their own knowledge and ignorance, this collection makes you think about things like cruelty and responsibility at the same time that it leaves you wondering that an earthquake or a scorpion could have ever really been so big.
Strange Pilgrims, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This slim volume of stories from one of the world’s masters of craft relies heavily on a light touch. Marquez presents serious themes in fable-like tales about the travails of ghosts and travelers finding their way in the world. From the story of a man sitting next to a beautiful woman on a trans-Atlantic flight to the story of Frau Frieda who earns her living by selling her dreams, this collection traces a path through the mundane to the fantastic and ties the two inextricably together.
To be honest, this is pretty typical Marquez, so if you couldn’t get into his other books, this likely isn’t for you. But if you enjoyed his novels, or maybe his other short stories, then this is definitely worth throwing in your beach bag. It comes with a strange prologue in which Marquez tries to explain something not just about his process as a writer, but about the process that lead to these stories, this exact number of them, in this collection. It’s an interesting introduction, part confession, part warning, and a must read for any fans of Marquez.
The White Album, by Joan Didion
While the title essay is undoubtedly one of the highlights of American non-fiction, it shouldn’t overshadow the other lesser-known essays in this collection. Mostly shorter pieces which appeared in a wide variety of publications throughout the seventies, these essays engage sixties culture and the women’s movement, California and its place at the end of American history, the politics of water and the uses of nostalgia. Didion’s eye for detail keeps each piece lively, even when the tone turns melancholy, and the precision of her language makes it nearly impossible not to re-read certain passages aloud for the sheer satisfaction of hearing something so well put.
It might be easy for a reader of my generation to dismiss some of these pieces as dated, and in some ways they are. For me, that’s always been part of their appeal. For a reader born after 1980, reading these essays is an education in the really not so distant past, a past that remains active in today’s political discourse, and which shows no sign of slipping quietly into the halls of history. From gender and class issues to the myriad myths of the American dream, The White Album, even with all its dated cultural references, remains prescient.
Selected Poems, by Derek Walcott, edited by Edward Baugh
I’m told there are better ways to read Walcott than reading this particular selection, but this is the volume I happen to have, and I have taken it to a number of different beaches since I picked it up. For the uninitiated reader, it’s definitely a good introduction to the range of voices and concerns in Walcott’s poetry. It begins with some of his earliest published works and continues up to selections from The Prodigal, his recent and more than partly autobiographical book length poem.
Walcott’s verse ranges from formal to free, from short lyrics to epics with long unwinding lines. While he is known mainly as a Caribbean poet, his work wanders widely through the history and culture of numerous traditions. The selections from The Fortunate Traveler and The Bounty include some of my favorite poems of all time, like the title poem from the former, and the 14th section of the latter which begins “Never get used to this; the feathery, swaying casuarinas.”
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles
It’s possible that I think of this book as a beach book not because of anything in particular about the plot or the subject matter, but because I borrowed a copy from a friend who had just returned from a trip to the southern coast of Spain. Reading it in bed one night, I found myself dusted with the fine sand trapped in the pages from her travels. I know, at least, that it struck someone besides myself as good beach reading.
Most of the book is set on the English coast in the town of Lyme. Part romantic mystery, part social-sexual history of the Victorian era, The French Lieutenant’s Woman follows the affairs of Charles Smithson, his fiancé Ernestina, and Sarah Woodruff, the mysterious referent of the title. The story, simple as it is, a man torn between two women, held my attention effortlessly. Full of suspense and intrigue, and punctuated with some startling authorial interruptions, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an easy book to read, and a hard one to forget or ever stop thinking about.