Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead does a remarkable job of capturing that elusive quality of summering on the shore as a kid. Days are long, but the summer itself remarkably short. Idle curiosity can turn serious in a flash, just as the long years of childhood can change, in one season, into a rush of adolescence. Whitehead manages to dodge the easy wistfulness of many such novels though by giving us such a strong sense of place—the summering enclave for well-to-do African Americans in the 1970s. It’s another strong outing for Whitehead, who now has written four wildly different novels. And while this one doesn’t quite have the virtuosity of The Intuitionist or John Henry Days, Sag Harbor is no vacation from it either.
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
It's said of Prince that he can play virtually any instrument in virtually any style. Annie Dillard, it would seem, has a similar felicity with the written word. She has written glittering essays, introspective, moving memoirs, and serious works of theology and philosophy. In 2008, she announced that she'd be retiring from professional writing with the publication of her second novel, The Maytrees. And what a finale it is. The novel follows the meeting, courtship, marriage, divorce, reconciliation and death of the title couple on mid-century Cape Cod. The setting gives Dillard a chance to display her particular gift for setting, and the story itself manages to elicit empathy without resorting the rancor or mawkishness of so many failed relationship stories. As a bonus, Dillard has a penchant for the arcane word, which adds a certain pleasure of discovery to the already sparkling prose.
Spartina by John Casey
The Ape confesses a certain fascination with maritime literature. Fishing, boats, nautical navigation, knots—we can’t get enough of the whole lot of it. Spartina is the name of the boat that Dick Pierce has been trying to build for years and is a metaphor for his life—solid, unfinished, and needing attention he is somehow unable to give it. Casey is quite good both with the details of the life of a Rhode Island fisherman (or at least crafty enough to fool the uninitiated) and with the quiet complexity of middle age. Spartina is a kind of cross between The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (though much less dramatic) and Empire Falls by Richard Russo (though with better prose). This is a personal favorite and an author that deserves a wider readership, which seems strange considering that Casey won the 1989 National Book Award for this novel.
(PS-We’re always looking for more great littoral literature, so drop us a hint in the comments if you’ve got a recommendation)