Writers' favorite beach reading.

Literature that thrills.
May 23 2006 7:47 PM

My Favorite Beach Book

What Scott Turow, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Connelly read on vacation.

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'His Majesty's Dragon' by Naomi Novik

Neal Pollack, author, Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel
His Majesty's Dragon
, Throne Of Jade, and Black Powder War by Naomi Novik: All right, I'll admit to really grinding up the geek machine. I'm settling in with a trilogy about an air war, with dragons, between England and France in the 1800s. These books, combined with my rapidly disappearing hairline and the presence of my 3-year-old son, will make me the hottest ticket in Malibu this summer.

'Castle Roogna' by Piers Anthony

Liesl Schillinger, writer and critic At the beach, I have a guilty habit of rereading my favorite books from childhood—one favorite is Piers Anthony's Castle Roogna. In part, this is because, basking in glaring sunshine and surrounded by friends and concealed Coronas, I find it hard to summon the concentration to sink into a new story. My mind continually caroms off the page, vectoring toward thoughts like, "Should I make ginger-lemon tuna steaks tonight, or is it more of a Fort Ouiatenon-pork-chops kind of day?" Rereading old books also makes the days seem longer, since no real "completion" of the book is ever possible. I love the escapism of Castle Roogn a, set in the pun-rich fantasy land of Xanth, where harpies flap their wings and screech, and everyone has a magic talent. Some talents are of "magician caliber"; the heroine, a ghost named Millie, turns out to have "magician caliber" sex appeal. It's completely stupid, completely satisfying, perfect for 100 degrees in the shade.

'The Rachel Papers' by Martin Amis

David Amsden, author, Important Things That Don't Matter
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. My gut tells me that Amis would disapprove of being labeled a beach read, but I read this book at the beach when I (much like the protagonist Charles Highway) was a pretentious 19-year-old neophyte obsessed with a girl who didn't know I existed. I've reread this whenever I feel like recapturing that ignorance, which is exactly the point of beach reading: to zone out, to simultaneously forget and remember, to be misguidedly nostalgic about moments that didn't actually happen. Plus, the novel was made into a perfectly terrible film starring Ione Skye and Dexter Fletcher—the ultimate post-beach rental.

'At the Mountains of Madness' by H.P. Lovecraft

Robert Ferrigno, author, Prayers for the Assassin
Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure
by Frank Arthur Worsley: This account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition is the perfect antidote for sweating on a sandy beach under an ozone-depleted sky. Shackleton's brains, courage, and tenacity got his frostbitten men to safety across 3,000 miles of ice and ocean in a couple of lifeboats. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft: Lovecraft's greatest work, his trademark horror elevated to a sublime adventure. The story of an Antarctic expedition (I see a theme in my selections) gone very wrong. Scientists exploring Antarctica's Mountains of Madness go missing, and a left-behind journal hints at ancient and terrible things they've uncovered. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy: Elroy's vision of Los Angeles cops in the 1950s is sordid and violent, filled with official corruption, hypocrisy, moral inversion, and the surprising grace that can only grow from the depths of sin. I loved every word of it.

'The Five of Hearts' by Patricia O'Toole
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Franklin Foer, editor, New Republic
The Five of Hearts by Patricia O'Toole: A terrific, dishy history of Henry Adams and his circle—which, at times, extended to Teddy Roosevelt, John Hay, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edith Wharton. Although it lacks political sophistication—there's not much on imperialism, for instance—it's plenty solid on romantic trysts and other salon machinations. And what else could you possibly want from intellectual history? 

'The Line of Beauty' by Alan Hollinghurst

Francine Prose, author, A Changed Man I strongly recommend Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. It reads as if Henry James and Danielle Steele had a brilliant baby who grew up to write a novel about social climbing at the start of the AIDS epidemic in England—a book that combines all the deepest pleasures of literature and trash.

'The Dark is Rising' by Susan Cooper

Laura Miller, critic, Salon
Purely recreational reading is practically nonexistent in my life. Reading is my job, and when I'm not working I'd rather do something less sedentary. But on those rare occasions when I'm not reading for work, I like to reread the books I loved as a child to remind myself of the pleasures that started me down this path to begin with. Some ( The Phantom Tollbooth) live up to my memories of them. Others ( A Wrinkle in Time) don't. This summer, I hope to get around to Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books.

'The Sheltering Sky' by Paul Bowles

Thomas Beller, author, How To Be a Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood
The Sheltering Sky
, by Paul Bowles. For me, summer means not light reading but heavy. I discovered The Sheltering Sky in June during an intense fever of serious summer reading (it was preceded by Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier). I read the last pages in one long stretch by the pool, starting at midday and ending in late afternoon, and by then I was alone, and the light was slanting and orange, and I closed the book totally haunted and now think of that cool blue of the empty pool in connection with the desert sky of that book. Something about the juxtaposition of the water and the stillness of where I was and the lost crazy urban mayhem of that last around-the-corner image heightened the whole thing for me.

'The Rabbit Novels' by John Updike

Sam Tanenhaus, editor, New York Times Book Review
Updike's Rabbit novels, particularly the last three, are the books I take the sheerest pleasure in reading and rereading. I try to go back to them every year. Perfect for summer is the great Rabbit at Rest with its astonishingly vivid picture of the Angstrom family vacationing in their cheesy Florida condo—the unforced way in which the drama unfolds amid the familiar chaos of comings and goings, desultory (and dismal) meals, TV watching, newspaper reading, golfing, tourist outings. Best is the domestic comedy—the feel of people who know each other too well and are constantly rubbing up against one another, the sudden eruptions of affection or outbursts of sudden rage. Hundreds of pages fly by without a false move or strained moment. And the prose! So densely real but also lushly visual and metaphorical. Each novel also has its glorious literary touches—for instance, the sly punning allusions to Lolita in Rabbit Is Rich. I keep hoping Updike will change his mind and write at least one more novel in the series—even if it's all about the whiny, grungy Nelson, so long as Rabbit is there to haunt him: Rabbit Resurrected?

'The Grandmothers' by Doris Lessing

Valerie Martin, author, The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories
The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing: Guys won't kick sand in your face if they see you reading a book by Doris Lessing, especially if they get a look at the title, which is The Grandmothers. They'll think you're some kind of arch-feminist beach-crank, but you'll be enjoying a truly salacious tale. The Grandmothers is all about two friends who go on a beach vacation with their teenage sons. Each, unbeknownst to the other, begins an affair with her friend's son. Soon all are in the know and just fine about it. The affairs continue through the years, long after everyone involved is old enough to know better. Doris! you'll be shouting. In your dreams!

For a complete list of recommendations, listed alphabetically by author, click here.