Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wishing We Were at the Beach...

We don’t know where you hang your hat, but out New York City way, it is hot. Surface of the sun hot. Hotter than Marilyn Monroe-reading-Ulysses hot. Such weather makes us long for balmier climes—and the books we would read were we there. And while we know “beach book” has a certain connotation (mindless thriller, mindless romance, mindless sci-fi, mindless chick lit), the Ape has a particular affinity for reading books set on or around the beach while reveling in a little supine sunbathing. Here are a few recent favorites:

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)


  1. You're lucky youve got some warm weather. Here is Sydney its 12C (54F). Freezing cold. Thanks for the recommendations

  2. I'm feeling the heat too, though not as much as you city folk.

    I haven't read them yet, but after asking for seafaring/nautical suggestions these made my TBR list: Linda Greenlaw's All Fisherman Are Liars, the Hungry Ocean, and the Lobster Chronicles; R.M. Ballantyne's the Coral Island; and Frederick Marryat's Mr. Midshipman Easy.

  3. right now i'm dreaming of heat and beaches, it's so so so cold and thunderstormy here in Perth Australia - those books look interesting, however in this weather i feel a need for gothic ghosts stories!

  4. Dillard had me at Pilgrim. That, and I find her curiously attractive, even hotter than miss Monroe reading the last page of U. While D makes me ache in an undisclosed location, I can't shake the impression that her storytelling in Maytrees suffers from a defect of sorts, having do to with a strained poetic effort to strike a deep metaphysical cord, emphasis on strained. As though she concerns herself with the characters only to the extent that they illustrate some deeper meaning or teaching. Still, the enduring relationship at the end of the novel goes a long way in overcoming this defect. Now that I think about it, Maytrees reminds me of Angle of Repose, at least in terms of thematic content... Regards, Kevin