Beach reads for dark summer days: 7 books to soothe the burn

Alice Bolin's "Dead Girls," Laura Lippman's "Sunburn," Leesa Cross-Smith's "Whiskey & Ribbons" and more

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published July 4, 2018 9:00AM (EDT)

"Meddling Kids" by Edgar Cantero; 
"Southernmost" by Silas House; "Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession" by Alice Bolin; "Sunburn" by Laura Lippman (Penguin Random House/Thorndike Press/Harper Collins)
"Meddling Kids" by Edgar Cantero; "Southernmost" by Silas House; "Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession" by Alice Bolin; "Sunburn" by Laura Lippman (Penguin Random House/Thorndike Press/Harper Collins)

What is a "beach read" anyway? That's a question asked by many and answered to universal satisfaction by none. In The Washington Post, Sophie McManus describes the concept first as understood to be “the paperbacks you don’t mind getting wet,” but then goes on to interrogate the sexism behind the marketing of "beach reads" to women as "private affairs for private consumption, escapes from care, easy and disposable, unlike novels that might be called 'ambitious.'"

Condé Nast Traveler, on the other hand, dubs summer "the perfect time for indulgent reading." As opposed to our heavily-regimented reading programs the rest of the year?

Over at Electric Lit, eight different authors weighed in on their specific philosophies of the ideal summer beach read. In my world, though, beach reads are just books you finally have time to read in the long chunks of sweet, rare uninterrupted outdoor time summer affords. These days, a side bonus is a story that will transport me away from, or serve as a necessary counterweight to, the hellscape of a CNN news loop and the screaming alerts about the latest White House wastebasket fire.

If I had a beach house, here are some of the new books I'd have on the shelf, plus recommendations from my colleagues Mary Elizabeth Williams and Matt Rozsa, who offers a presidential biography as his selection. After all, as Lin-Manuel Miranda can attest, you never know when even the most unlikely of summer vacation reads might change the world.

"Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession" by Alice Bolin

The first lady goes missing for weeks at a time. The ghosts of women and girls who died from botched, pre-Roe v. Wade abortions are haunting us again. The New York Times is running op-eds entertaining the worldviews of men who want to sexually dominate women, or kill us if they can't, while as a country we still can't figure out what to do about the fact that behind so many mass murders there's often a man who first abused, harassed or stalked an individual woman or girl, and yet still got his hands on a gun.

In her excellent new essay collection "Dead Girls," Alice Bolin pulls high-, low- and middlebrow cultural threads from all points of literature (Joan Didion, Eileen Myles, Toni Morrison, Swedish detective novels), prestige TV ("Twin Peaks," "True Detective"), true crime media ("Serial," "Dateline"), film (French New Wave classic "Cléo, From 5 to 7," the teen werewolf flick "Ginger Snaps," which I must watch immediately) and music (Britney Spears, Lana del Rey) into an uncompromising and infinitely engaging exploration of the existential burdens of being a woman or a girl living, and dying, in our misogynist culture.

This book is no shrine to the ravishing corpse, though. Bolin's essays dismantle our romantic, toxic notions about female sexuality and innocence, and interrogate her own role in consuming them, in order to solve the ongoing, unsolved mysteries of how real girls and women can outlive America's obsession with their ruin.

"Southernmost" by Silas House

If it feels right now like America is more divided along cultural, political and religious lines, you're not crazy. But novels can show us a path to reconciliation, offer models for grace and even celebrate something as fundamental and fundamentally life-changing as the act of changing your mind.

Silas House's new novel "Southernmost" hinges around such an internal sea change of political and religious conviction that upends the stable life Asher Sharp has built as a Pentecostal preacher in a rural Tennessee town near Nashville who is sure of his religious beliefs, which include not accepting LGBT people, including his own brother. (Read the whole interview with Silas House.) But when a flood thunders through his community and a life-changing experience with a gay couple makes him reevaluate his certainty about God and his own role as a Christian and a minister, the life he'd built begins to slip away from him, and he makes a desperate decision to try to reclaim it. What follows is Asher's simultaneous spiritual awakening and downward spiral while on the road and on the run. Asher ends up in Key West, simultaneously hiding out and searching for the one person he feels can help him find himself.

I devoured this novel in three giant gulps, as compelled by Asher's fugitive narrative and House's command of language as by the inspiring spiritual and emotional awakening at its core.

"Meddling Kids" by Edgar Cantero

"Meddling Kids" (out now in paperback) is the perfect horror detective story for an era in which the national mood can best be described as dread. In this turbocharged mashup of "Scooby-Doo" and H.P. Lovecraft, four teen archetypes (a tomboy, a brain, a jock and a nerd) and their Weimaraner sidekick solve the mystery of The Sleepy Lake Creature terrorizing their summer vacation town. Spoiler for anyone who's never taken a ride in the Mystery Machine: The unmasked old man would have gotten away with it if it weren't for them.

Fast forward 13 years and the surviving members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club — plus Tim, the descendent of that faithful Weimaraner — have to face what has become of them since those teen years as well as the dreadful conclusion that maybe they didn't debunk the Sleepy Lake Creature mystery after all. Maybe something scarier than a bitter old man was camped out in that old mansion, and maybe it's returned, and maybe they're the ones who can vanquish it for good.

Come for the perfect pop culture references, stay for what truly haunts the gang, now all grown up and still grappling with the emotional fallout from that summer. At its heart, "Meddling Kids" is the story of working through the aftereffects of trauma, and an inspiring call to arms to not let the (evil, otherworldly) bastards get you down.

"Whiskey & Ribbons" by Leesa Cross-Smith 

Yes, this novel is set during a freak blizzard, and yes, it is a novel about mourning an untimely death. But more importantly, it's a beautifully written triumph of life over despair, featuring three of the most memorable fictional characters to debut this year.

Set in Louisville, "Whiskey & Ribbons" tells the story, in the form of a fugue of three braided voices and timelines, of ballet dancer Evangeline, who becomes a widow and a mother pretty much at the same time when her husband Eamon, a police officer, is shot and killed in the line of duty. Eamon's adopted brother and best friend Dalton, a classically trained pianist and bike shop owner, steps in to help Evangeline raise baby Noah while grappling with his own family-of-origin issues. In their post-Eamon life, over one long snowed-in weekend, Dalton and Evangeline try to untangle their complicated dance of desire and grief, to figure out what a shared future could look like. (Read the whole interview with Leesa Cross-Smith.)

Reading Cross-Smith's lush prose is like wrapping yourself in a very soft and warm sweater. Dalton and Evangeline are gutted by Eamon's death, but they're not broken. For those looking for stories of hope and renewal, Cross-Smith's words satisfy like a perfect cup of tea on a quiet day.

"Sunburn" by Laura Lippman

Leave it to Laura Lippman to write a propulsive page-turner of a thriller that also demands respect for women's rage — a scorching hot topic this summer, as it turns out. In "Sunburn," now out in paperback, Lippman unveils the story of presumed femme fatale Polly's life on the run slowly and deliberately, while paying loving homage to noir icon James M. Cain's works like “Mildred Pierce.”

One day while her husband plays with their 3-year-old daughter on a beach not too far from their Baltimore home, a beautiful redhead named Polly packs a bag, leaves two notes and sends herself into the wind. She touches down in a nearby small town not close enough to the beach to be worth it, a town "put together from some other town's leftovers." In a locals' tavern called the High-Ho she meets handsome Adam, also passing through but suddenly interested in staying put. They both take jobs — he's the cook, she's the waitress — and embark on what they think is a discreet affair.

What kind of woman is Polly? That’s not exactly the question Adam is asking when he first approaches her in the High-Ho with his own secrets, his own capacity for drawn-out games, but it’s the only question that matters in this story. Their affair tethers them to each other in ways neither could have predicted that first night at the bar. Then an untimely death tests their bond. How much do either of them really know about the other? Is their love real, or is someone getting played? (Read the full review.)

"Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From, and Why" by Dean Burnett

What, neuroscience isn't your idea of a beach read? Maybe a standup comic scientist will change your mind. In his charming and droll "Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From, and Why," British author Dean Burnett approaches the complex, often fleeting, state of mental satisfaction with ebullient curiosity and wonder. Why does a sappy pop song make us tap our toes? Why is laughter so essential? Why does it feel so good to crush out on someone we know almost nothing about?

Burnett explores the geography of happiness, interrogating the complex systems of internal chemistry and external factors that make it flourish or wither. He even detours over to the "dark side," to understand the things that, conversely, make us miserable. On that tip, he pointedly throws in "Men who get homicidally outraged when told that women don't 'owe' them sex." Along the way, he explains, point by point, why you shouldn't take those clickbait headlines about the latest studies that supposedly unlock the "secret" of happiness. (Spoiler: It isn't ever just one thing.)

At a moment in history when joy feels like a luxury that few can afford, Burnett makes the case for the infectious effects of social connection and love — even if their curative powers have limits. Happiness may be difficult to attain and even harder to explain, but your heart, your gut and your brain know the truth; it beats the hell out of the alternative. As the author says, "Experiencing happiness may well be more of a necessity, rather than an indulgence." — Mary Elizabeth Williams (Read her interview with Dean Burnett.)

"President Carter: The White House Years" by Stuart Eizenstat

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that interviewing Stuart Eizenstat was something of a dream come true for me. As an undergraduate at Bard College, I wrote my senior project on President Jimmy Carter's controversial "Crisis of Confidence" speech, which has been denounced by many as a political disaster but which I argued was well-received by the American people when it was delivered in 1979.

That speech in many ways epitomized Carter's presidency, which is lovingly but honestly chronicled in "President Carter: The White House Years" by former domestic affairs adviser Eizenstat: It was thoughtful and offered an approach to politics that Americans have rarely seen from their national leaders before or since; it was actually pretty successful, despite its subsequent reputation; and, to ordinary Americans, it has long since been forgotten.

Why Jimmy Carter wasn’t a failure

An interview with Stuart Eizenstat

Yet as Eizenstat's book demonstrates, Carter deserves to be regarded as one of America's most successful modern presidents. His domestic agenda has helped stave off future energy crises and increased ethics regulations on government officials (and in the Trump era, the need for ethics in government has become more apparent than ever). In foreign policy, he managed to significantly improve America's relationship with Latin America by returning the Panama Canal and forged one of the few lasting Middle Eastern peace agreements, in his case between Israel and Egypt. Carter was even responsible for ending the inflation that is associated with his presidency (credit was given to his successor, Ronald Reagan) and for negotiating America out of the Iranian hostage crisis (credit was, again, given to his successor, Ronald Reagan).

In other words, Eizenstat's book is a great read for any liberal who wants to show up their conservative friends while talking politics on the beach. — Matt Rosza

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

MORE FROM Erin Keane