A Summer Tale

There's Nothing Like Wading Into A Great Story That Isn't Too Deep.

Summer Reading

June 26, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We use the phrase regardless of season: "beach reading." Implicit in that slightly elitist, often derogatory, term is that the books are not-quite-literary. Maybe it's a paperback thriller bought in an airport between flights. Or a romance, replete with Fabio on a bodice-ripper cover. Maybe it's a great, big rolling novel like Gone With the Wind, or anything by James Michener. Wasn't Peter Benchley's Jaws born on -- and for -- the beach? What exactly makes a good beach read? Do we want "soft" literature, subtle substance or simply sheer, blissful entertainment? Do we want the classics revived via Oprah? How about a really good page-turner of a story that might survive the season or might not, might be fiction, might not, might be tragic or funny or a mix of the two? The summers of my youth were spent on tiny Long Beach Island, a (then) desolate spot on the Jersey shore sans boardwalk, sans movies, sans anything but beach. Except, of course, books. Lots of them.

The women of my family (the men toiling back in the city) would loll in the sand under the huge beach umbrellas, each with a book propped before her, little stacks of them in reserve on the blankets. Histories and mysteries, classics and "trash." Books were as ubiquitous as Coppertone on those summer days; books were like the waves themselves -- I was mesmerized by their ebb and flow, pulled into their undertow. Nostalgia for books on the beach has never left me.

Beach reading evokes different things for different readers, but a quick click to Barnes & Noble, Borders or Amazon and it's clear that "beach reading" equals fluff to the industry, if not the reader. Chick lit, thrillers, graphic novels, self-help tomes: publishers are clear, for the beach a smorgasbord of fluff is haute cuisine. Whether by industry definition or that of most readers, the quintessential beach book is one that skims past, light and airy as a summer breeze or is deeply, intensely (if momentarily) captivating, like a summer romance. Forget subtext; beach books are about surface and above all, "story."

In the summers of my youth, the big weekly excursion was often a trip to the local five-and-ten. Amidst the rafts, flip-flops and other seasonal accoutrements stood several slender carousels of paperbacks. I would spin them around, allowed to purchase only one (the choice agonizing). Some were classics, like To Kill a Mockingbird, read when I was little older than Scout herself. Others were classics of a different sort. At 12, my favorite beach book was Ray Bradbury's chilling totalitarian tale of book burning and repression, Fahrenheit 451, now a classic beach book, as it still sizzles. At 15, it was Violette LeDuc's edgy, slightly lurid lesbian novel Therese and Isabelle (by then, I had long chosen my own beach reading without a parent's watchful -- or disapproving -- eye).

The books from those summers have stayed with me -- redolent of my youth and my nascent writer's sensibility. (Beach reading can also be embarrassing in retrospect: like the summer I read all of Rod McKuen's poetry. Or the next, when I read all of Rimbaud -- in French. So much literary excess can be forgiven on the beach!) Despite how publishers and their superstore satellites define beach reading, like a swimsuit and the body in it, it's all about the eye and sensibility of the beholder. "Sexy" seems the best adjective to describe the perfect beach read: A book that wraps its prose, plot, people and places around you and doesn't let go until its breathless finish.

Joyce Carol Oates' mesmerizing gothic romance, The Falls, with its sexual, political and familial drama, is a perfect beach book -- long, languorous and utterly engrossing. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a sweetheart romance of a beach book. Eons ago John Irving's Hotel New Hampshire lay on a table in the beach house where I was staying -- an excellent beach book to this day.

Beach books can also be funny -- highbrow, high camp or low-life laughs, politically incorrect or politically driven -- David Sedaris (Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), Bill Maher (New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer) or Al Franken (Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them). Wanda Sykes (Yeah, I Said It), even. Humorists liven the more stolid hours between simmering in the sun and sipping cocktails at sunset. Volleys without nets, thigh-slapping double-entendre and just enough political edge to force you into the water to cool off, humor definitely gives good beach.

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