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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.

***

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.

* * *

Alison Fields is a writer in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Editor: Katie Kosma

Just a Spoonful of Siouxsie

Illustration by Mark Wang

Alison Fields | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (3,609 words)

She showed up on an overcast Friday afternoon in January. She barreled into the driveway in an old mustard-gold Buick with a black vinyl top, its back dash decorated plastic bats, novelty skulls, and dried flowers. She was wrapped in black sweaters, black tights, black boots. She wore clunky bracelets, loads of them on the outside of her sleeves. Her hair was long and henna red. She carried an Army surplus satchel pinned with old rhinestone brooches and Cure buttons. She was 19 years old. When I opened the front door and she smiled at me, I thought she was the most perfect person I’d ever seen.

“I’m Gwen,” she said. “I’m here to interview for the nanny job.”

That’s when I noticed the nose ring and I blubbered something incoherent, then apologized because I was both overwhelmed and mortified that someone this cool was going to come into my stupid house.

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Character Work

Illustration by Ellice Weaver

Alison Fields | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,214 words)

My dad moved out of the house on January 1, 1990. He’d packed up his cartons of books, records, and stacks of old issues of the New Yorker from the shelves built specifically to house them. This left his study, my favorite room in the house, vacant. I’d largely accepted my parents’ separation and forthcoming divorce. I wasn’t Haley Mills. I had neither a twin nor a plan to get them back together. I don’t remember exactly how I managed his departure, except the first night he was gone — really gone — I lay in bed reading Anne Rice novels and listening to the Beatles on my Walkman, thinking my mother’s claims of “Nothing will change, everything will be the same, and we’ll be all right” had a fine whiff of bullshit about them.

Dad’s apartment was on the second story of a recently renovated building in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, full of other divorced parents and distracted weekend children. When the custodial schedule put me there, I spent a lot of time wandering our then-empty downtown. I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica. There I pined after rosaries as jewelry, accidentally stole candles, and visited with the priest. He was a good-natured and quiet man, who perhaps recognized that even pious adolescents don’t spend whole Saturdays alone wandering around a drafty church if they’re even remotely happy. I’m sure I needed answers to a lot of the Big Metaphysical Questions life had served up the past few months, but mostly we talked about the Grand Central Oyster Bar and why my nascent atheism would be a real barrier to entry if I ever wanted to convert to Catholicism.

One Saturday, Dad took my younger sister on one of those guilt-fueled, divorced-parent shopping benders. When she returned, flush with toys, new stereo equipment, and a pair of hamsters, Dad handed me a blank check to take to the public library and pay my king’s ransom in overdue fees. I filled it out at the circulation desk under the twitching eye of the upstairs librarian. On the way out the door, I caught a glance of a yellow flyer that read AUDITIONS TODAY: YOUTH THEATER COMPANY SEEKS YOUNG ACTORS. Finally, I thought, a reason not to find God.

I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica.

I hadn’t curled my hair, put on lip gloss, nor prepared a song from Les Miserables that was hopelessly out of my vocal range and life experience. But I needn’t have worried; I made the company in about 30 seconds. I was flattered and impressed with myself. I didn’t even have to act. They could just see the talent emanating right off of me. The director said she’d see me at orientation the next week at the theater — your new home away from home! Afterward, I stood on the sidewalk across from Dad’s apartment building, January sleet silvering down on me, and glanced up at the basilica. I thought, That poor priest is going to have to find someone else to talk to.

My mother took me to the information session. Unlike my father, who’d met news of my professional theater career with a “Great job, bud” and a nod back to the golf game, Mom found the whole turning your kids into professional actors pitch suspicious at best. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was. Sure, the audition process was unconventional. The theater, in name only, was a filthy warehouse filled with giant spiders and dingy whitewashed brick, with ancient wooden floors so bowed and worn you could pass notes through the cracks to the cellar. The next production was “an Irish play, you know, for St. Paddy’s Day” that had yet to be written seven weeks out from opening. My fellow young thespians were mostly the homeschooled children of hippie parents, and a handful of tough girls with skinhead boyfriends, lipstick the color of bruises, and pack-a-day smoking habits at 13. My closest peer was coincidentally the daughter of my father’s divorce attorney. I couldn’t exactly figure out what she was doing there, but I was glad she was around. Driving me down the derelict alley to rehearsal the first time, my mother was alarmed at the scruffy day-drunks relieving themselves against the wall across the street. I thought it was bohemian, you know, kind of punk rock. Though I would never have said that aloud because the tough girls would have punched me in the arm and called me a poser.

Mom thought it was possible the owners were running some kind of elaborate con. I was sure I was not being conned. “I mean, they haven’t asked me for a dime,” I said. “Yeah, well, they’re charging me several thousand dimes for you to be involved in all this,” she replied. I felt kind of guilty about that, but I also knew that because of the weirdness of the divorce she probably wouldn’t say no.
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