Thursday, July 21, 2011

Best books for the beach

Nathalie Atkinson The Afterword National Post Jul 21, 2011 – 8:00 AM ET | Last Updated: Jul 20, 2011 6:21 PM ET

This is your brain. This is your brain on summer.

This week, Tuesday’s #gno (the “girls night out” hashtag used by moms to denote their weekly Twitter klatsch) turned to the topic of summer reading. Kyran Pittman, a Canadian writer I profiled a few months ago, weighed in that she was bunking up with Austen and offered a pithy summary of why you should leave the likes of Faulkner on the shelf. “I sometimes feel like I’m the last believer in fallow time. Brains need to drain, in my opinion.”

Fallow, not shallow. I’m not wading into the commercial vs. literature debate, genre vs. Important Books By Important Authors. I draw no lines in the hot sand. The formula is more along the lines of whether, in combination with plentiful sunshine, leisure and a view of the lake, the book still sucks you in with its particular magic. It needs to be more immersive than an RPG or as buoyant as a Weezer song. Juicy, rather than meaty. Put another way: Even Booker Prize winners sometimes need to take a break.

Novelist John Banville (who won the Booker in 2005 for The Sea) also writes 1950s Dublin noirs under a pen name. Banville’s fourth and latest Benjamin Black novel is A Death in Summer and concerns a Dublin heat wave and his alcoholic gumshoe Dr. Garret Quirke, a consulting pathologist with the Dublin city morgue. Banville is known for his dense, complex use of language; as Black, he gets to loosen up and play, although the poetry is still unmistakable.

“Everything was shimmering in the heat out there and he could almost taste the cindery dust in the air, and the river had a bilious stink that no thickness of grimed glass could shut out.”

Summer reading is about pleasure, none of it guilty, and never more than in July am I solicited for book recommendations. Before you ask, though, I generally start by suggesting the Meg Wolitzer back list — especially The Position, then The Wife. Then I get specific. Cottage weekend with the girls? Beneath a Starlet Sky, the latest beach read co-written by longtime besties Amanda Goldberg and Ruthanna Khalighi Hopper (daughter of the late actor Dennis Hopper).

Day at the beach near a friend’s summer share? A bit of enjoyable fluff, actually called Summer Rental, by Mary Kay Andrews. Have a whole week? Pack the black comedy Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton, a couple of Gyles Brandreth’s clever period series or Felix Palma’s The Map of Time, an inventive mind-bending adventure of Victorian time travel — it’s what would happen if Jasper Fforde and H.G. Wells teamed up on Sherlockian steampunk screenplay of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

I’m not alone in my list-making. No other reading season gets this particular sort of red carpet treatment — the genre lists of surefire police procedurals, estrogen- and recipe-fuelled cozies, and the many microsites touting titles both high-minded and lowbrow. O, The Oprah Magazine’s summer reading list includes an intriguing one — The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin, a lush historical novel that seems perfect for the devotees of PBS’s Downton Abbey series now suffering from withdrawal. It’s also got a crowd-pleaser in David Nicholls’ sleeper hit One Day.

Heather’s Picks, the guaranteed good reads personally anointed by Chapters & Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, also lightens up for the summer, cherry-picking recent selections from Shania Twain’s hefty autobio and Esquire’s cookbook for men to Robert Rotenberg’s latest legal thriller and a sassy helping of Janet Evanovich.

For arts writers, summer is about reading ahead and playing catch-up on missed titles — though you can bet it won’t include that RRSP guide I’ve been meaning to get to. Mea maxima culpa: I still haven’t cracked any Harry Potter, let alone The Hunger Games.

I’ll also be skipping the supposedly chilling crime novel The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (the pseudonym of a Swedish literary couple) and going to J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine instead. People have rhapsodized about it for several weeks, bragging about playing hooky from work to finish it. Next, it will be The God of Greenwich by Norb Vonnegut, a novel about the hedge fund kinds of Connecticut. Vonnegut is a former Wall Street stockbroker and his gift for portraying certain social sets positions him as a satirical heir apparent to Louis Auchincloss. I might even have a peek at The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo parody. I’m leaving the books that feel like homework to October. Or Labour Day, at least.

I’m not Ms. Reisman so I can’t offer you a money-back guarantee, but here are five guaranteed good summer reads, of recent vintage:
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman
The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine

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