Beach Blanket Biblio
Combing for Quality Books Set Amid Sand and Surf
But what if you want something more? What if Grisham is too brainless but John Irving is too eccentric? Must a diversion be dumb?
This summer, don't settle for beach books; opt for books about the beach. If this sampling is any indication, you'll find a wide variety of entertaining but smart books full of suspense and danger--real and imagined--that you'll want to keep after you've rinsed the sand out of your suit.
Jim Crace's 2000 novel Being Dead (Picador, 196 pages, $12) is so beautifully written that it elevates a nearly clinical description of bodily decay to the level of poetry. Crace takes as his story the death of a middle-aged couple who make an impulsive visit to the scene of their first encounter. As zoologists, the two have always had a professional interest in the beach, and on this trip they attempt to rekindle their personal ties to the surf and one another. Instead, they are murdered by a thief, and their bodies left to rot amid the dunes.
Crace's gorgeous prose alternates between descriptions of the couple's decomposing bodies, memories of their 30-year marriage, and the effect of their disappearance on their grown daughter. All of the details attain equal weight, and you'll find yourself equally worried about their daughter's recovery from grief and the survival of the lissome grass pressed down by the couple's bodies: "Hope springs eternal in the natural world. Its leaves and blades sprang straight again. They dragged their bodies from the gluey sand to face the morning. They latched their protein-eyes on daylight. They photosynthesized."
Before it became a dreadful feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beach (Riverheard Books, 436 pages, $13) was a well-written, suspenseful novel that earned positive comparisons to The Lord of the Flies. In this 1997 debut, Alex Garland manages to imbue his protagonist, Richard, with the right mix of arrogant young slacker, frightened traveler, and insightful human being.
At the book's start, Richard is just another post-college Brit backpacking through Thailand and telling himself that he's a traveler, a higher class of being than the tourists milling around him. At a hostel in a Thai beach town, Richard meets a fellow trekker, who leaves as his suicide note a map of a secret beach on a restricted island. Richard invites a French couple along for the adventure, and the three soon find themselves in a commune/island paradise.
As he waxes poetic about the azure clarity of the water and the idyllic pleasures of beach life, Garland plants dark questions in the reader's mind: Who are the armed soldiers that Richard and his friends eluded on their arrival? How safe are the young travelers in the commune? What forces on the island paradise led Richard's acquaintance to take his own life? The novelist allows the tale to spin at so slow a pace that it's occasionally painful for the reader, but he rewards patience with a satisfying and philosophical conclusion.
Although it's a memoir, A Trip to the Beach (Clarkson Potter, 296 pages, $25) tells of a life so far removed from that of most readers that it might as well be fiction. After authors Melinda and Robert Blanchard sold off their successful brand of gourmet salad dressings, the middle-aged couple rather impulsively moves from Vermont to the Caribbean isle of Anguilla to open a restaurant and live the good life.
The book, published last year, attempts to chronicle the trials and travails of running a serious business on "island time," a catch-all phrase that refers to the low-stress lifestyle that brought the couple to Anguilla in the first place. Although attractive as a vacation lifestyle, "island time" is infuriating for ambitious entrepreneurs. The Blanchards must buy everything, from stoves to weekly food supplies, in Miami and have it shipped at great expense to Anguilla. Because of island laws, the couple must hire only natives as employees. Because of island weather, they risk their investment and lives when Hurricane Luis arrives.
The writing is unpolished and accessible, but whatever drama the Blanchards see in their tale, readers are likely to see only a well-off white couple who worry too much about fine wine and portobello mushrooms. It's hard to worry about the fate of their rented restaurant (and their dreams for it) when there's an island full of natives at risk from financial and meteorological forces.
Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, the authors of The Beach (Viking, 310 pages, $25.95), come across as similarly privileged and out-of-touch, but their undertaking feels less self-indulgent. The 1999 book is a survey of beach history, covering everything from how sand is formed to the changing hemlines of fashionable swimwear. It's tough reading at first--not surprising, given that the authors are academics--but it'll give you plenty of strange knowledge to share at cocktail parties.
Against the Tide (Columbia University Press, 279 pages, $16.95), Cornelia Dean's petition for Americans to stop building on their beaches and thereby destroy them, is the scariest book of this sampling. Dean, a science editor at The New York Times, demonstrates that beaches do just fine on their own; humans--and their expensive homes--are the ones at risk. The beach, being a natural organism, tears down and repairs itself with regularity, but cliff-edge mansions and highway bridges don't fit into Mother Nature's plan for the shoreline. The book argues that our own efforts to maintain the shore, such as constructing sea walls, are destroying our coastlines.
Dean makes her point wonderfully in the book's epilogue: "A natural shoreline does not need protection. It may change shape or position in response to storms, but that is not a problem unless someone has built too close to the edge. There is no erosion problem until people get into the act." Keep that in mind this summer as you're listening to the sea gulls and brushing sand off the pages.
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