A Summer Tale

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We use the phrase regardless of season: "beach reading." Implicit in that slightly elitist, often derogatory, term is that the books are not-quite-literary. Maybe it's a paperback thriller bought in an airport between flights. Or a romance, replete with Fabio on a bodice-ripper cover. Maybe it's a great, big rolling novel like Gone With the Wind, or anything by James Michener. Wasn't Peter Benchley's Jaws born on -- and for -- the beach? What exactly makes a good beach read? Do we want "soft" literature, subtle substance or simply sheer, blissful entertainment? Do we want the classics revived via Oprah? How about a really good page-turner of a story that might survive the season or might not, might be fiction, might not, might be tragic or funny or a mix of the two? The summers of my youth were spent on tiny Long Beach Island, a (then) desolate spot on the Jersey shore sans boardwalk, sans movies, sans anything but beach. Except, of course, books. Lots of them.

The women of my family (the men toiling back in the city) would loll in the sand under the huge beach umbrellas, each with a book propped before her, little stacks of them in reserve on the blankets. Histories and mysteries, classics and "trash." Books were as ubiquitous as Coppertone on those summer days; books were like the waves themselves -- I was mesmerized by their ebb and flow, pulled into their undertow. Nostalgia for books on the beach has never left me.

Beach reading evokes different things for different readers, but a quick click to Barnes & Noble, Borders or Amazon and it's clear that "beach reading" equals fluff to the industry, if not the reader. Chick lit, thrillers, graphic novels, self-help tomes: publishers are clear, for the beach a smorgasbord of fluff is haute cuisine. Whether by industry definition or that of most readers, the quintessential beach book is one that skims past, light and airy as a summer breeze or is deeply, intensely (if momentarily) captivating, like a summer romance. Forget subtext; beach books are about surface and above all, "story."

In the summers of my youth, the big weekly excursion was often a trip to the local five-and-ten. Amidst the rafts, flip-flops and other seasonal accoutrements stood several slender carousels of paperbacks. I would spin them around, allowed to purchase only one (the choice agonizing). Some were classics, like To Kill a Mockingbird, read when I was little older than Scout herself. Others were classics of a different sort. At 12, my favorite beach book was Ray Bradbury's chilling totalitarian tale of book burning and repression, Fahrenheit 451, now a classic beach book, as it still sizzles. At 15, it was Violette LeDuc's edgy, slightly lurid lesbian novel Therese and Isabelle (by then, I had long chosen my own beach reading without a parent's watchful -- or disapproving -- eye).

The books from those summers have stayed with me -- redolent of my youth and my nascent writer's sensibility. (Beach reading can also be embarrassing in retrospect: like the summer I read all of Rod McKuen's poetry. Or the next, when I read all of Rimbaud -- in French. So much literary excess can be forgiven on the beach!) Despite how publishers and their superstore satellites define beach reading, like a swimsuit and the body in it, it's all about the eye and sensibility of the beholder. "Sexy" seems the best adjective to describe the perfect beach read: A book that wraps its prose, plot, people and places around you and doesn't let go until its breathless finish.

Joyce Carol Oates' mesmerizing gothic romance, The Falls, with its sexual, political and familial drama, is a perfect beach book -- long, languorous and utterly engrossing. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a sweetheart romance of a beach book. Eons ago John Irving's Hotel New Hampshire lay on a table in the beach house where I was staying -- an excellent beach book to this day.

Beach books can also be funny -- highbrow, high camp or low-life laughs, politically incorrect or politically driven -- David Sedaris (Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), Bill Maher (New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer) or Al Franken (Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them). Wanda Sykes (Yeah, I Said It), even. Humorists liven the more stolid hours between simmering in the sun and sipping cocktails at sunset. Volleys without nets, thigh-slapping double-entendre and just enough political edge to force you into the water to cool off, humor definitely gives good beach.

Of course nothing says beach reading like a thriller. These long, cool, noir-ish immersions are the most inviting beach companions. James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Janet Evanovich, Michael Connelly, Dan Brown -- the pages turn as quickly as the waves crash the shoreline and every summer there's a new one! Conspiracy theories, police procedurals, Mickey Spillane hyperbole, high body counts and dark and stormy nights in desolate beach towns. These books were written with the beach in mind (Evanovich's latest is even touted as "a peach for the beach") -- just enough plot to keep you interested, not enough complications to make you put it down. John Burdett's kinky new thriller with his Thai detective and a brothel full of unapologetic prostitutes, Bangkok Tattoo is total beach reading -- thoroughly engaging, but like an ideal summer meal, not too heavy for the heat and sun.

Politics also has a place on the beach, be it a Red- or Blue-state seascape. This summer, the Clintons are back (did they ever leave?) on the best-seller list and opposing sides will be chumming the waters again with Ed Klein's The Truth About Hillary (replete with vicious subtitle) and John Harris's unflinching yet admiring history of Bill Clinton's presidency, The Survivor. Last summer, my beach book was the decidedly un-fluffy Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson. Yet it stood the beach test: It was an absolutely thrilling tale, from start to finish, of America's most complex genius. Sure, it had subtext, which is anathema on the beach -- but it also had "story." As I read my big, fat, 600-page biography, I caught other beach-goers toting an even heftier tome: the Oprah Book Club version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, in all its daunting 900-page glory. Oprah made Tolstoy a best seller and got millions to read what legions of English teachers had failed to.

Oprah's secret? Beyond the plethora of Russian names as long as your sun-kissed arm, Anna Karenina is a superb beach book, because it's as enthralling as the ocean itself -- huge, enveloping, sensual and dangerous.

Just as some writers made it OK to read the less-than-literary on the beach, Oprah has done the obverse, declaring that beach books need not always be fluff. This summer, Oprah had a three-volume set of Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August) printed up for her club in a neat little slip-case. Faulkner. Three-volumes. For the beach. This is so not fluff lit.

Soon the beaches will be littered with Faulkner. Beach reading can be very obsessive, like my adolescent-angst-ridden Season in Hell with myriad volumes by Rimbaud, my tattered Larousse pocket dictionary by my sunburned side.

So, sometimes the beach demands more than the lightest of the light. The beach is also for classics, or for catching up with what you've missed, or revisiting what you only vaguely remember from your college days. Was Harper Lee's novel compelling beach reading decades later, as it had been when I was 10? The salt-sea air, the sounds of the ocean underscoring the voice of the little-girl narrator, the seagull screams like the crescendo in Atticus' courtroom -- the beach made the re-reading that much more poignant, the story even more moving than it was all those summers ago.

Sometimes the beach is for that one almost unbearably good and seriously literary novel that must be read and digested slowly, like a meal before a long swim. Last summer, I reviewed Lorraine Adams' debut novel, Harbor. This stellar, mesmerizing novel (now in beach-friendly paperback) about an Islamic immigrant who may or may not be a terrorist, remains one of the most compelling novels I have read in a decade or more. Adams' insights into the "issue" of terrorism post-9 / 11, as well as her intuitive sense of what it is to be utterly isolated by language difference and the threat of deportation, made Harbor one of the best books of 2004, a breathtaking literary achievement.

Given the choice between the seriously literary or the ubiquitous fluff, however, most of us will inevitably choose the lightest option and be none the worse for it. The beach remains a good excuse for reading books whose literary value is akin to an ice cream cone -- forget the nutritional merit, it's all about pleasure.

Beach reading, then, is what we make it -- sexy, funny, sad and sometimes even intellectually intense. But, no matter what publishers or Oprah or our mothers tell us to read, on the beach there will be books. Lots and lots of books. Good and bad literature, but satisfying all the same. Beaches and books seem to have a natural affinity, perhaps illustrating that Emily Dickinson was right -- "a book is like a frigate, to take us miles away." And on the beach, unlike anywhere else, all books are equal under the sun.

Victoria A. Brownworth has published several collections of high-grade, beach-reading mystery and suspense tales, and several non-fiction tomes best left for the rumination of long winter nights. Her latest collection, Day of the Dead and Other Stories is suitable for all seasons.

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