Like a lot of people who grew up in Florida (or California, or wherever there's an endless summer), I've learned to fear the beach. Sunburn, sandcrabs, tourists in tight clothing -- you know the litany. What's more, the beach is generally a sorry place to dip into a good book. Even if there isn't a 200-pound bruiser kicking sand up your nostrils, the multiple distractions -- including, sometimes, tourists in tight clothing -- make it difficult to submit to whatever spell an author may be trying to cast. The term "hammock reading" isn't very evocative of summer, but when I think of the books I plan to take away with me this July, that's where I imagine myself reading them.
No matter where you plan to lug your pile of beach books this summer, there's an unusually good supply of lively, literate, engrossing titles. Below are recommendations, culled from a handful of Salon's editors and regular critics, of some of the best hardcovers published thus far in 1998. Before we get to that, however, here's an (admittedly personal) look at some of the most interesting paperbacks that have recently landed in stores.
In the nonfiction category, it's hard to ignore Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" and Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" -- they're tightly wound, and surprisingly humane, narratives about how men and women react in the face of nature's extremes. Both writers had remarkable stories to tell, and it's genuine praise to say that both books are better than they had to be. Another fine book, Steven Biel's "Down With the Old Canoe," takes a broader and more distanced view of another tragedy -- the sinking of the Titanic. Biel's book came out well before James Cameron's film, and it will appeal even to those who'd rather drink sea water than hear another word about Leonardo DiCaprio. It's a nuanced look at the Titanic disaster's multiple meanings -- how the sinking affected its era's art, politics and culture.
Three other worthwhile (and deeply idiosyncratic) nonfiction books are Ellen Ullman's "Close to the Machine," David Sedaris' "Naked" and Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life." Ullman is a San Francisco computer programmer (and NPR commentator) who writes with luminous, streaming ease about the ways that humans and machines interact. Her memoir is one of last year's best. Sedaris is also well-known to NPR listeners; his elfin monologues have a bristly, cerebral charm that translates perfectly to paper. (The title, by the way, comes from his misadventures at a nudist colony.) Alain de Botton's book is a charmingly erudite tour of Proust's world, a tour that distills the great author's work into an unusually provocative self-help book.
The fiction list is even stronger. Here are seven recommendations: Diane Johnson's "Le Divorce," a novel about what happens when American families bump into French social mores, is as sparkling as a bottle of Veuve-Clicquot; Victor Pelevin's "Omon Ra," translated from the Russian, is a satire about the Soviet space program that's as funny as "Catch-22" and as moving as J.D. Salinger's best work; Allegra Goodman's "The Family Markowitz" is a series of linked stories, from a precocious young writer, about an intellectual (and squabbling) Jewish family.
Denis Johnson's "Already Dead" is a Northern California noir
that has a perfect ratio of brawn to brains; Alex Garland's "The Beach" is a highly literate page-turner, about
thrill-seeking Westerners adrift in Thailand, that reads like an
updated version of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness";
Donald Antrim's "The Hundred Brothers" is -- quite literally
-- about a gathering of 100 brothers, and it has wit and style to
burn; and Robert Stone's "Bear and His Daughter" is a
collection of stories, from a master of the form, about men
and women who move at the margins of society.
Take them to the beach, if you must. I'll be that guy in the shade, swinging between a couple of sturdy palm trees.
Here are some recommendations, from Salon's editors and critics, about 1998's best hardcovers:
In summer, the next best thing to taking a road trip is reading about one. In "Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys" (Norton), Scottish writer Duncan McLean treks across Texas in a rented car (having gotten his driver's license just months earlier, on the other side of the road, no less) in search of clues to the life and music of his idol, Western swing superstar Bob Wills. McLean is a game and trustworthy guide: He's genuinely interested in meeting and chatting with Texans, especially the musicians who actually knew and worked with Wills, and the result is an earnest, off-beat, sometimes touching travelogue.
In his fast-moving, tough-talking and devilishly inventive novel "Bunny Modern" (Little Brown), David Bowman escorts us to the year 2020, showing us a world from which electricity has mysteriously vanished and fertility has taken a powder. It shouldn't be a particularly happy place, yet Bowman's book is cheerful in a sick sort of way. His sense of humor is breezily sophisticated and sufficiently cracked, but there are always real feelings lying beneath his sometimes goofy veneer.
And in his second novel, "Starting Out in the Evening" (Crown), Brian Morton builds a subtle, engaging story around three central characters: an aged novelist, the eager, shallow student who's hoping to write a thesis about his work and the novelist's daughter, who isn't much interested in reading her father's books but who loves him with fierce tenderness. Morton's style is refreshingly straightforward. Instead of bundling his prose in heavy-duty metaphors and flowery language, he shapes emotional contours for his characters out of simple, light layers. It's the kind of book that effortlessly makes you think and feel at the same time.
In hot weather, give me the slim volume, where the sentences are so carefully sculpted that it doesn't matter how long I space out between reading each one. Restrained books seem cooler somehow. I'd recommend Jonathan Lethem's "Girl in Landscape" (Doubleday) to readers seeking something strikingly original, a combination of adventure, imagination, piercing domestic realism, intelligent wrangling with the mythos of the American West and one of the best 13-year-old girls ever written by a man (or anyone for that matter). It's the story of Pella Marsh, whose family relocates to a frontier planet where she faces off against a charismatic but domineering rancher and slowly shapes an adult self around the loss of her mother to cancer. Jo Ann Beard's autobiographical stories, in the collection "Boys of My Youth" (Little, Brown), mostly don't tackle weighty topics (except for a piece about the day a lone gunman killed several of her co-workers), but they have an easy, slangy, cantankerous charm that's nearly irresistible. Beard has uncanny powers of recollection, particularly when it comes to early childhood. Her memories of her 3-year-old self, a personality forming itself as raw drives collide bruisingly with the world, are refreshingly unsentimental -- tart as a glass of iced lemonade.
"Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65" by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster), the second volume of Branch's projected biographical trilogy about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., is equal to the narrative, emotional and moral complexity of the Civil Rights Movement. Alternating between 1983 and 1996, "The
House of Sleep" (Knopf), British novelist Jonathan Coe's labyrinthine tale of coincidence, missed connections and unexpected reunions, combines the farce of Wodehouse with the rage and compassion of Dickens. Smart, engaging and possessed of a becoming light touch, Laurence O'Toole deftly knocks every anti-porn argument on its head in "Pornocopia" (Serpent's Tail). What separates him from academics and social critics who've done the same thing is he's a fan and not ashamed to admit it. Slacker noir sounds like a genre invented by some young sharpie on the make. In her first novel, "Like a Hole in the Head" (St. Martin's Press), Jen Banbury doesn't feel the need to impress us with toughness, and she isn't ashamed of the emotion and fear behind her heroine's tough exterior. Banbury gets the mixture of comedy and thrills just right. Read it before the movie version slated to star the new patron saint of the terminally insecure, Calista Flockhart.
1998 has been a good year, so far, for the pleasures of the traditional novel: imaginary worlds made solid by detail; characters and landscapes sympathetic in their familiarity and provocative in their particularity. I loved Anna Quindlen's "Black and Blue" for the wry voice of its damaged but courageous heroine, a battered wife on the run, although I wish Quindlen hadn't abandoned her to a damsel-in-distress plot at the end. Toni Morrison's "Paradise" offers her characteristic strengths: lush (if occasionally overinflated) prose; vivid re-creation of often hidden chapters of American history; and characters whose iron determination is beaten into strange shapes on the anvil of suffering. "Paradise" is also a page-turning psychological thriller, carefully woven of potentially disparate elements -- the interlocking narratives of women fleeing from the traumas concealed by the benign words "home" and "love"; the unusual setting of a historically black Middle-American utopia; the inevitable conflict between a carefully nurtured ideal of black self-sufficiency and the changing political realities of the 1970s. The fundamental mystery of "Paradise," however, is one that "Black and Blue" also addresses: How do our dreams of creation turn into nightmares of destruction?
Six months into the year and with dozens of new titles now safely in the dumpster, I can recommend three splendid books for summer reading -- two novels and a case history, each of them providing the kind of sweeping, enthralling read that's perfect for lazy days. Start with T. Coraghessan Boyle's "Riven Rock" (Viking), the novelized history of Chicago millionaire Stanley McCormick, heir to the "Reaper" fortune, and his feminist wife, Catherine, whose tortured marriage survived McCormick's incarceration with schizophrenia and gave them both whatever they knew of passionate, consummate love. Boyle is a wizard of word and detail, turning what might otherwise have been a grim study of madness and loss into a delightful valentine to the McCormicks and their circle. Similarly, in "A Widow For One Year" (Random House), John Irving trots out the best he has to offer in a rollicking family portrait that revolves mainly around love, sex and the nature of creative writers. It's familiar Irving territory but beautifully told -- wide, magisterial and, through the prism of Irving's black humor, deeply moving. Finally, I vastly enjoyed Philip Hoare's "Oscar Wilde's Last Stand" (Arcade), an account of the notorious "Billings Trial" in England in 1918, when the "Salome" dancer Maud Allan brought suit for libel against Member of Parliament and right-wing fire-breather Noel Pembleton Billings, whose wartime scare-tactics alleged that the Germans had a "secret list" of 47,000 prominent Britons who were secretly -- and not so secretly -- homosexual, and that Allan herself was a leading devotee of the "Cult of the Clitoris." A wonderful social history, chronicling the first of many "Trials of the Century" it demonstrates yet again that sexual hypocrisy knows no particular time, place or nationality: It is permanent and universal.
In a strange publicity stunt for his new saga of Internet-industry back-stabbing, "Burn Rate" (Simon & Schuster), Michael Wolff decided not to include an index in the book -- an index is only available on the Web site. Wolff claimed that he didn't want people just pulling the book off store shelves to look up their own names and find what he said about them. After reading "Burn Rate's" accounts of Web entrepreneurs' devious tactics -- including Wolff's own -- you might fairly assume that the no-index move is instead a ploy to build traffic on the book's site. In any case, "Burn Rate" is a lot better at storytelling than at name-dropping. For all the author's self-importance and dubious sincerity, and despite the book's failures of analysis and insight, it's a genuine page-turner. And its vision of an industry built on a sheer determination to incinerate investors' money is one that will keep a lot of executives awake at night, long after they've located their own names in its pages.
"I had rediscovered my saline psyche," is how Jimmy Buffett puts it. He means the sea. When he's not looking for that lost shaker of salt, it seems, he's out on the bonefishing flats of the Keys, or getting mystical about the rips off Nantucket, or examining, as the song says, "that Caribbean soul I can barely control." His nice 'n' lazy newest work is "A Pirate Looks at Fifty" (Random House). It really is the perfect beach reading; yes, there's decent biographical stuff, but really the book is about beaches, or at least the water that laps upon them and the moods that produces. We're talking phrases like "paradise" and (don't go there) "mental Tiger Balm." The man's boat is even named Euphoria. Now, I'd bet Mr. Margaritaville himself would pick Peter Fonda's "Don't Tell Dad" (Hyperion) to imbibe this summer. In "Pirate," Buffett recalls how much "Easy Rider" influenced him, especially the scene where "Peter and Dennis [Hopper] are quickly pounced upon by a harem of hippie chicks, who get naked, give them dope, and ..." Fonda's book is better. But the two men are of a piece. There's the repressed childhoods (Buffett is a Catholic school victim, Fonda is wrecked by his demanding dad and suicidal mom), the drug years ("mushroom salads" for Pete, "Marley-sized spleefs" for Jim), the therapy, the fierce love of sailing. They're both beach bums, really, who made enough green to stay out on the blue. Lucky for us, they can even write.
For me, 1998 has so far been a year of brevity. One of the books I've most enjoyed has been among the shortest, while the other wholeheartedly embraces the aesthetic that less is more. The first is Abigail Thomas' "Herb's Pajamas" (Algonquin), a collection of four loosely linked short stories that revolve around loss -- the common currency connecting all of Thomas' characters, whether they know it or not. Spare, elegant and eschewing any hint of false resolution, these narratives share only the most fleeting moments of intersection, which imbues them with the touching serendipity of real life. Equally powerful is Grace Paley's "Just As I Thought" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a volume bringing together nearly four decades of essays and journalism that becomes a moving record of the author's political times. Paley is one of our national treasures, renowned for her exquisitely rendered fictional miniatures, and the pieces here operate with similar subtlety and, er, grace. Still more riveting, however, is Paley's hard-headed, and unreconstructed, radicalism; even at 76 -- and unlike too many of the lefties with whom she came of age in the 1950s and 1960s -- she refuses to back down.
Gayl Jones had such a terrible time last winter -- her volatile husband committed suicide, and she's been in a psychiatric hospital -- that people forgot to talk about her new novel, "The Healing" (Beacon Press). Jones is said to be shy, but her book is brightly colored and simmering with energy. She can write talking-to-yourself sentences like J.P. Donleavy, jingling chains of speech about sardines, racehorses, just about anything.
Then, how about this: Two rubes decide to bag a huge fat hibernating rattlesnake so they can sell the venom. The heat inside their truck revives Mr. Snake. Ow. Gordon Grice's "The Red Hourglass" (Delacorte), about mean nasty predators, is crawling with similar surprises. Grice comes off like a horror nerd, but you have to be weird to keep a tarantula on your kitchen table.
And here's the sleeper of the year: "Rhonda the Rubber Woman" (The Permanent Press). Norma Peterson, bless her, died of leukemia before her only book came out. Her 1940s tale of a teenage contortionist and her promiscuous mom is warm and inventive, yet has lots of bleak, lonely spots that give it wonderful tang and balance. Reading this feels like reaching through a yellow fog of years and grabbing a carnival prize.
Sun too bright for you this summer? Longing for dark shadows, dank recesses? You should crawl between the covers of Andrew Klavan's eerie thriller "The Uncanny" (Crown). Big-time Hollywood producer Richard Storm has made a string of movies based on classic English ghost tales, but when he comes to England to hunt down evidence of "one lousy uncanny thing" he finds himself plummeting through the black hole between fact and fiction. Klavan echoes 19th century Gothic masters like Edgar Allen Poe (M.R. James' ghost shows up for a cameo) to produce a speed-of-falling narrative whose plush cinematic visuals dizzy you even further. The whole gang's on board -- Nazis, witches, Norse gods, Arthurian legends -- and the ride is wicked good. In "Green Sees Things in the Waves" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), August Kleinzahler scores the rough jangle of everyday talk for poems whose music recalls the peppery bounce of Poulenc or Thelonious Monk's missing notes. Read slowly and listen to how he plunks and plinks the keys in "Tanka-Toys: A Memoir": "The clues to my being--/the bloody windsprint/the mashie niblick hanging/from a willow/the retreating aria/... Oh, I was freed/freed, I say/kneeling, teething/chopchopchopping/like a tractor piston/like an outboard coughing up lake." This new book is full of off-kilter yet dead-on observations that hover just above our recognition until their very sound trips the brainwire and the "little truth" falls into place; it's something you've always known, but now, as Keats said, it's been "proved upon the pulse." Kleinzahler's wiry tunes are what happens to unheard melodies when some smart cookie finds the volume switch.
Ian McEwan's new novel, "Enduring Love," (Doubleday) has the most gripping opening passage you're likely to read in a serious novel this year -- a hot-air balloon is plummeting into an open field, and a series of onlookers rush toward it, hoping to rescue its two occupants. What none of these onlookers know is that this moment, and its tragic aftermath, will alter their lives forever. McEwan, one of literature's true black magicians, spins out this story with his enormous skill, and as always his writing is full of the kind of small pleasures (perfect sentences, acid observations) that poke you happily awake. By its close, "Enduring Love" has become a striking meditation on rationality and religion, on love's wilder states and on the nature of selfishness. How much do we give others? How much do we keep for ourselves? McEwan writes slim, interior novels; Richard Price writes sprawling, exterior ones. What links them is the ability to ensnare you with the sheer force of their narrative skills. Price's new novel "Freedomland" (Broadway), told in neon-lit prose, is an urban spin on the Susan Smith kidnapping case; it's about what happens when a woman is carjacked while her young son is sleeping in the backseat. The child goes missing, and a series of shrewdly drawn characters is sucked into the tale -- notably an affable community-based cop named Lorenzo and an aggressive local journalist named Jessie, who fights to get the woman's story. Price is known for the reporting he does before putting words to paper, and all the details here feel exactly right. Even better, "Freedomland" reads like a comet. Finally, I'd recommend Calvin Trillin's wry and self-deprecating new memoir, "Family Man" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Trillin claims that the sum of his childrearing advice is: "Try to get one that doesn't spit up. Otherwise you're on your own." But he's just, of course, being modest. This meandering book is stuffed with insight about how the Trillin family did manage to stay so close -- close enough that Trillin likes to joke that his apartment may someday become a stop on the Gray Line Tour of New York City as a place that houses "the last nuclear family in lower Manhattan."