By Carole Reedy
Picture yourself on vacation or living at the beach and what do you see? For most of us, what springs to mind is you, relaxing on pristine sand overlooking glassy blue water, beer or margarita in one hand and a book in the other. For stressed-out Northerners, a common feeling is “All I want to do is lie on the beach and read.” So this month we offer some suggestions.
Beach reading doesn’t necessarily mean light reading, though another goal of hard-working foreigners on vacation is to not overtax their minds. Happily, the best of both worlds isn’t difficult to find. These suggestions don’t include academic tomes or fluff, but rather a sampling of renowned authors who possess the unique talent of communicating profound thoughts in simple ways.
Mysteries and Crime Stories
Authors who specialize in this genre often find their followers read all the works their favorite authors create. Beloved characters recur–not only the protagonists, but supporting and incidental characters too. Sample these delights if you haven’t already. Each author has written enough novels to keep you satisfied for a good long while, and some are still writing.
The queen of the detective story, P.D. James, died recently at 94, writing until the end. Deservedly, much has been written about her and her detective-poet Adam Dalgleish, whom she created in 1962 and who she describes as the man she would like to have been. Baroness James felt that crime literature was undervalued. Her books set in England are impeccably researched for historical and scientific accuracy and are among the finest crime fiction written. Start with the first, Cover Her Face, and continue. A few of her later books stray from standard form. Children of Men is a dystopian novel set in England in 2021. Death Comes to Pemberley is a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with a murder mystery twist, naturally.
Louise Penny takes us to Canada. Her mysteries are set in Quebec in the idyllic community of Three Pines. Penny combines a bit of philosophy while weaving intricate descriptions of her character’s lives into the plot. Start with Still Life, the first of the series, available on Kindle for just $2.99.
Henning Mankell is beloved by so many. Currently he’s retired from writing due to serious illness, but there’s a substantial cache of his books to enjoy. Mankell for years has lived in both Sweden and Mozambique, six months of the year in each, and his novels reflect his interest in the social problems of both societies. Star detective Kurt Wallander and many of the novels have been interpreted for television by Kenneth Branagh.
Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (let’s not forget Sherlock Holmes!) are other star mystery writers. And if P.D. James is the queen of the mystery novel, then Ruth Rendell (also writing as Barbara Vine) is her princess.
Steven King’s novels of terror, mystery, and psychological angst keep readers riveted, whether they’re reading on the beach or bus or at home cowering under the covers. King’s newest, Mr. Mercedes, has been cited by some lists as one of the best novels of 2014. Dip into his older books too, such as The Stand and The Shining.
The identification of a classic has always eluded me. Here are some novels that are considered classics and others that will join that category in the future.
The elusive J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. We don’t know how many books Salinger has written as much of his life remains a mystery, and there is speculation that he wrote under different names. This book and its main character–the young, confused, and bitter Holden Caulfield–remain in the hearts and minds of all who have read this famous short novel.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Second only to Catcher in the Rye for raw descriptions of the youthful agony of maturing young men, this novel brought Roth to the attention of the critics 40 years ago. The controversial book put the conservative Jewish community in a tizzy with the vivid description of young Portnoy’s confessions.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. This 19th century satirical British novel is a book I read on a beach north of Barcelona in 1971, first-hand proof that a several-hundred page classic can be enjoyed in the sun. Thackeray’s biting antihero, Becky Sharp, will keep you so engrossed you may forget to reapply your sunscreen.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. The brilliance of the sun will put you in the perfect place and mood for the heat of this Hemingway’s novel, set in Pamplona Spain. Hemingway’s fiction is precise and crisp. If reading it piques your curiosity to know more about the art of toreo, try his Death in the Afternoon, which explains in detail the corrida de toros.
History and Historical Fiction
Or I’ll Dress You In Mourning. Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins have the unique talent of writing history that feels like reading a novel. This title, one of the several they’ve created, takes place in Spain in the 1930s, at the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s told through the eyes of Manuel Benitez, a street orphan who struggles through the war to eventually become the millionaire matador El Córdobes. Before his first corrida Benitez says to the sister who raised him, “Today I will leave the plaza and buy you a house or I will dress you in mourning.” Other books include Is Paris Burning, O Jerusalem, and the compelling Freedom at Midnight, one of the best books written explaining the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
James Michener is known for his grand histories about different countries, the most popular and interesting of which is Hawaii.
Since it’s easy to become distracted while lounging on the beach or at a pool, the short story makes for ideal vacation reading. These compact tales allow you to concentrate for shorter periods, but to still experience the satisfaction of plot and character development. After poetry, the short story may be the most difficult genre to write, every word and sentence crucial to the story’s success. Popular short-story writers include T.C. Boyle (author of several collections), Raymond Carver, Julian Barnes, Joyce Carol Oates, and the master of the genre, O. Henry.