On, In, or Near the Sea: A Book List

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Alison Fields | Longreads | July 2019 | 7 minutes (1,753 words)

My peak beach read moment came in 1999. I sat third in a line of chaise lounges — my grandmother Nana, my Mom, me, my younger sister — beside the pool at the Lowcountry beach resort we’d visited every summer since time immemorial. All four of us were sun drunk. Three of us were at least tipsy from cabana cocktails. Nana, Mom, and my sister glistened with Hawaiian Tropic — a trio of golden-tanned nereids in black swimsuits and designer sunglasses. I was lobster pink, slathered in 50+, and cowering under long-sleeved shirts and towels like I was going out for a part in a zero budget Lawrence of Arabia because genetics are cruel.

Nana wasn’t much of a reader. Her preferred tomes were pricing guides for antique Japanese porcelain and the Horchow catalog. That year, however, she’d packed a paperback copy of The Starr Report amidst her Breton tees and linen shorts. Nana was a vocal critic of the Clinton administration, a fact that surprised no one as her personal politics ran slightly to the right of Divine Right Monarchy. I supposed she thought the book would bolster her already outspoken arguments. All of us knew better than to ask. We had a gentleman’s agreement with regard to politics on family vacations, the central conceits of which were: 1. Don’t bring it up and 2. When Nana does — and she will — change the subject as quickly as possible.

In that moment by the pool, I was lost in a dream of Conquest-era Mexico, wading through a particularly muddy chapter of Terra Nostra, and I could tell Nana was on the verge of saying a thing. My sister had put on headphones and securely hid her face in her college summer reading. Mom, reading an epistolary novel about Empress Josephine, was sitting next to Nana, so she was the most easily available when Nana finally sighed dramatically and tapped her Virginia Slim impatiently against the resort-branded ashtray.

She said Mom’s name about three times. Mom might have been engrossed in her book, but Nana was persistent. When she knew she had Mom’s attention, she shoved The Starr Report toward Mom and tapped a manicured fingernail against the page.

“Honey, would you mind telling me what this is?”

There was a long pause. I listened to the splashing of swimmers in the pool, the ice clinking at the bar, the wheels on a catering tray bound for some beachside fête. I wondered Are they playing the Cardigans at the tiki bar? Mom’s pause stretched, long enough for me to realize with dawning horror that whatever text had stymied my then seventy-three-year-old grandmother was probably not a legal term.

“Anybody want another round?” I stood up and asked.

Nana waved me off, looking expectantly at my mother. Mom gave me a pleading look and told me to add the drinks to her tab.

As I walked down the boardwalk toward the bar, I could hear Mom in the same halting, careful words I remember her using when she explained certain things to me, “Well, Mother, when a man and a woman love each other very, very much . . .” I made a mental note to order Mom a double.

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Two things I like: 1. Sitting on, in, or near enough to the sea that I can sense it, and 2. Reading books.

My inner pirate captain is a bit of a librarian. And my inner librarian is only ever a breath away from raising the sails and lighting out for ports unknown. She knows that nothing improves the reading of a novel like a salty breeze and sand on the toes, even if said salt and sand are sticky murder on a paperback. I suppose there are people that go to the beach without a book. Those people are perverse. What do they do instead, exactly? How much bocce can a human play?

This time of year friends ask me for beach books because I read more than is probably healthy. Sometimes people even want to know, specifically, what I will be reading at the beach. That’s a gamble, because it’s basically just my TO READ stack and there be monsters. Case in point: I spent the vast majority of a week at the beach some years back with Britain in Revolution, Austin Woolrych’s history of the English Civil War (the book was excellent).

I think I do okay with recommendations. The better I know you, the closer I’ll get to the mark. But critical to the whole endeavor is what you mean by Beach Book. Some people define the genre as a slightly better class of an airport bookstore read — something breezy, either plot-heavy, funny, or both, not too serious, not too academic. Some people see the Beach Book as literal — a book set on or near a beach. Sometimes these two categories overlap and that’s awesome, but you have to be very, very careful or you’ll summon Nicholas Sparks, the literary equivalent of the dude who brings a Filet -O-Fish to a Lowcountry Boil.

For today, I’m going with the second category. Books about beaches, seas, sand, and coastal destinations to accompany the end of the summer season and the first stirrings of the fall.

Let’s start close to home. Many of us end up at the beach on family vacations, always awkward, which Colson Whitehead’s sly, autobiographical Sag Harbor pretty much nails. While vacationing, questions of love and class can arise, especially if there’s marriage on the horizon as is the case in Dorothy West’s The Wedding. In Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, friendships (and friendships with a romantic possibility) blossom around the various impediments of small-town prejudice and adolescence.

Oceanside theme parks and roadside attractions give tourists the chance to mingle with full time carnival-types, like Karen Russell’s Bigtree dynasty at their alligator wrestling park in Swamplandia, or at the eponymous, possibly haunted North Carolina theme park in Stephen King’s slim, enjoyable Joyland. Hotels can also occupy the seaside, and JG Farrell’s extraordinary Troubles offers a darkly humorous critique of colonialism and its obliviousness in face of revolution within a sprawling, cat-infested resort on the Irish coast. If you prefer your seaside hotel on the fancier end, and for your mysterious IRA man to have ‘80s hair, there’s Jonathan Lee’s haunting High Dive.

Moving to a more tropical locale does not guarantee a more peaceful plotline. Proximity to both spectacular island sunsets and titans of Reggae do not prevent against the violence and conspiracy at the heart of Marlon James gorgeous, epic A Brief History of Seven Killings. The ghosts of Trujillo’s Dominican Republic haunt the landscape in Julia Alvarez’s fictionalized recounting of the Maribal sister in her In the Time of the Butterflies. And the generations of Indonesian women inhabiting the lush, fictional port city of Eka Kuniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound survive decades of war and political upheaval amid a landscape buffeted by trade winds and a bit of magical realism.

Islands have always been ripe for troublemakers and hijinks — actual pirate captains, not just imaginary ones ideated in suburbia. Richard Hughes’ deft, surprising (based on a true story!) High Wind in Jamaica, with its pint-sized pirate ship mutineers is just about the best thing ever. Anyone who finished Lord of the Flies back in the day will not be surprised to see kids going very dark in tropical environments. Ugly things can even happen in suburban, post climate-crisis, dystopian Florida in Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. Things get a little weird in Florida, as in Lauren Groff’s marvelous short story collection, Florida, and really, really weird in Jeff VanDerMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.

We’ve always known the sea is home to monsters. Sometimes the literary ones have their own perspective on events, such as in Madeline Miller’s wonderful, magical Circe. Some of those who spend their lives conjuring monsters from the deep have their own particularly monstrous ideas. Certainly that was the case with HP Lovecraft, and Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is a great novel that tries to make sense of that. On the other hand, sometimes monsters end up being something quite unexpected, as in Sarah Perry’s gorgeous The Essex Serpent, a historical novel about science, faith, and love. Rarely do monsters end up being as wholly and completely hilarious as they do in Mat Johnson’s richly-imagined Pym, which takes on both Edgar Allen Poe and Little Debbie Cakes in its satirical journey through the (very) cold heart of American racial politics, past and present.

Of course, it’s never the destination when it comes to sea voyages, as much as the journey. I like journeys that say something about both the people making them and the world they are traveling through. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies assembles a fascinating, multinational cast of characters to sail upon ships carrying indentured servants between India, and continues them through the next two books of his Ibis trilogy. Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage recounts the horrors of the slave ship from the unlikely perspective of a newly freed slave who boards for its last journey. The title character of Esi Edugyan’s masterful Washington Black begins his journey in Caribbean slavery and then travels a path through several continents and scientific discoveries.

Seaside journeys also offer people an opportunity to meditate — sometimes philosophically — on their various troubles, as is the case in Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy or John Banville’s grieving narrator in The Sea. Dealing with romantic disappointment might provoke an escape to the seaside, even if it happens that your ex is already there, as is the case in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. It’s also possible you might be forced to leave your seaside home, and there’s usually a price to that. Just ask the Little Mermaid or Antoinette in Jean Rhys’ dreamy Jane Eyre “prequel,” Wide Sargasso Sea.

Finally, if you’re the sort of person that demands a dense history to while away your days, might I recommend David Abulafia’s The Great Sea, a survey of the Mediterranean from antiquity to present. It’s well-written, informative, and offers a wider lens view of one of the world’s most fascinating places than, say, your fourth reread of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley or that copy of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins your friend from book club loaned you. Though, indeed, both of those are peak beach reads.

Don’t forget your sunscreen, and happy reading.

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Alison Fields is a writer in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Editor: Katie Kosma