My Favorite Beach Book
What Scott Turow, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Connelly read on vacation.
Thomas Mallon, author, Bandbox If you want a cheesefest—a whole giant Hickory Farms platter of one—get hold of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Truly lurid, its tales from the stained boudoirs and gamy crypts of Tinseltown are unfailingly cruel; the book wants a reader's pleasure to be wholly undiluted by guilt, accompanied only by a cackling superiority. True, beach books are supposed to be compact and pulpy, whereas HB is slightly oversized and printed on decent paper. So, just think of it as a pair of vintage trunks instead of a Speedo and go get wet—no, make that slimy.
Joyce Carol Oates, author, High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006
I never visit beaches except to walk or run, but I do travel frequently, and, on long air-flights especially, take along a duffel bag of bound galleys of upcoming books to read, or read into, in search of a book, and an author, I will want to read in some depth for review. Though my reading is invariably work-oriented, it isn't any less pleasurable for that reason.
Diane McWhorter, author, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution Because I'm too much of a self-scolding Calvinist to go in for pure escapism, my perfect beach book would be something like John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, which, while it is all about sex and money, also checks in at No. 22 on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list. (OK, actually: Pamela Des Barres, I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie—truly one of the best books I've read about growing up female in the 1960s.)
Lori Lansens, author, The Girls Anita Shreve's All He Ever Wanted is a haunting tale about an adoring husband betrayed by his young wife. A page-turner, like all of Shreve's books, the story is told, or confessed, by the tormented husband himself, Nicholas Van Tassel, who acts passionately, even monstrously, when his love is unrequited. Still, my allegiance never shifted from increasingly evil Nicholas, and even as the novel drew to a close I held out hope for his success.
Gary Shteyngart, author, Absurdistan When I'm tanning by the sea I reach for Jorge Amado's Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. A masterpiece for the ages it ain't, but there's tons of booze, chicanery, gigantic behinds, samba, and rather endless permutations on adultery with so-called "mulattas." It's about Brazil, in other words. It's also very, very long. I think I've been reading it for the last 20 years.
Stephen Metcalf, critic-at-large, Slate
My favorite work of pulp fiction is, without a doubt, Brighton Rock, an unrelentingly nasty bit of business by Graham Greene. Greene divided his work between literature and "entertainments," but Brighton Rock splits the difference. It's the founding document of existentialist noir, and a bloody good beach read.
Jodi Picoult, author, The Tenth Circle
Dirty Blonde, by Lisa Scottoline—I like to take her books on vacation with me. She's a really great writer for that genre, with terrific female characters—the only caveat is that I get so involved in the plot that I forget I'm supposed to be watching my kids Boogie-board in the ocean. Shopaholic & Sister, by Sophie Kinsella—Confession time: I picked this up when I was in the U.K. and jet-lagged, and found myself absolutely charmed. When you don't want to have to think, this is perfect ... and Becky Bloomwood, the main character, makes anyone feel better about their own shopping addictions!
Jennifer Egan, author, The Keep, forthcoming August 2006 The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: a mouldering mansion, doppelgangers, a psychopathic family member with a passion for small singing birds—anyone with a yen for the Gothic can expect to lose serious sleep to this one. And the atmosphere of shady decay could prove a welcome tonic for the summer heat. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: A tragedy of manners, morals, and unconsummated love, The House of Mirth never fails to leave me sobbing. This smart, brutal novel about the fate of feminine glamour and beauty in a world run by men and money is all too relevant, and pretty much impossible to put down. The Secret History by Donna Tartt: Many summers ago, I fleetingly considered trying to read Donna Tartt's first novel while driving in stop-and-start traffic. And her achievement is all the more remarkable because there's no mystery per se: We know who did what right from the beginning.
George Saunders, author, In Persuasion Nation
For my money, the best beach read is How To Get Sand Out of Your Private Areas, by Hitch C. Groyan. Ha ha! No seriously. The best beach book is I Floated Nearby, Full of Envy by Moby Dick. It's the heartbreaking, true-life story of a whale who longs to come up on the beach and befriend the wealthy, joyful people he sees there but can't, because he has no legs and is totally naked. Also, he is a little sensitive about his last name. In the sad conclusion, this cranky guy named Ahab kills "Moby" to make him into lantern oil, only to find that lanterns are no longer used. Then—I haven't read it in awhile—I think Ahab gets so depressed about the lantern thing that he cuts off his own leg, and then this crocodile keeps chasing him around, and the crocodile learns to fly and decides never to grow up, and asks the audience if they believe in fairies, and then gets arrested for using language insulting to gay people. It's sad, but it's also depressing, and really makes you think while totally bringing you down and making you want to have about six more drinks and go for a swim.
Jon Meacham, author, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation I know books are supposed to open new vistas of human experience (and I really mean to get to Proust one day soon), but on vacation I love returning to familiar ground with Trollope's sequential novels. Last year I finished another jog through the churchy Barchester series, and this winter I started anew on the Pallisers by diving back into Can You Forgive Her? This summer's treat: Phineas Finn. I suspect I like them because I read them all as an undergraduate, imaginatively populating them with faces I knew in the small Tennessee town where I went to school. Trollope's comfortable world, with its terrific psychological portraits of great slices of humanity, is a reassuring one, and reassurance on vacation is a pretty good thing.
Daniel Menaker, executive editor-in-chief of the Random House Publishing Group
I am taking three books with me to the (I'm afraid at this point merely metaphorical) beach. One is for a gloomy strand indeed— The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner. It's a brilliant dismantling of the idea that conscious mental decisions cause physical actions—which I have been trying to finish for four months now. I'm taking it with me because, evidently, I don't really have a choice. Another is Elmore Leonard's The Hot Kid, because it's by Elmore Leonard. (Despite its title, it's not my biography.) And a book that—full disclosure—my group is publishing, about a pig called Christopher Hogwood, and the town it lived in. It's called The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.