Imprints in the Sand
Books About Beaches to Take to the Beach
Over dozens of case studies, author and marine researcher Richard Ellis inks out humanity's remarkably efficient depletion of marine life, be it plant, fish, or mammal. With each chapter dedicated to a family of species (sea turtles, waterfowl, seals, etc.), Ellis reels out anecdotes to demonstrate not only how the caprices of food, fashion, and other human fads have winnowed many ocean populations down to oblivion, but also how consumers remain willfully blind to the problem: In 1999-2000, for instance, Ellis estimates that more than half of the global catch of Patagonian toothfish came from illegal poaching--but we wouldn't know, because we've been eating it under the name of Chilean sea bass. The near-extinction of the Steller's sea lion, meanwhile, was a maritime mystery for years, until scientists found that the mammals were dying off due to our own taste for pollock, the staple of the Steller's diet that was being overfished to meet the U.S. market demand for fish sticks.
When it comes to spinning yarns of the natural world, Richard Ellis is no John McPhee--his prose is dead-plain--but what he lacks in style he almost makes up for in know-how, especially all things historical. What did 13th-century Icelanders think about gray whales? He's got you covered. Curious about the arrival of Basques to Newfoundland in the 1500s? No problem. But Ellis is convincing enough about the urgency of this problem that you just wish his approach were harder and sharper--more journalism and less antiquarianism. But it's still more than enough to ruin a day at the beach, and the plate of tilapia you'll have afterward. (Blake de Pastino)
American Beach: How 'Progress' Robbed a Black Town--and Nation--of History, Wealth, and Power
By Russ Rymer
Setting a rumination on race, history, and memory in a tiny beach town may sound flippant at first, but Russ Rymer effectively turns this unlikely locale into a microcosm in which to explore pre- and post-segregation America. American Beach (1998, Harper Collins) is actually a triptych of three interconnected tales in and around northeast Florida: a black American Beach man killed by white police officers; the rise and decline of American Beach, a black resort town north of Jacksonville created by the state's first African-American millionaire, now buffeted on all sides by high-priced developments; and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston and the place where she grew up, Eatonville, the nation's oldest black incorporated town. But it's American Beach and its founder, Afro-American Life Insurance Co. chief executive A.L. Lewis, that are at the heart of this book.
The decline of American Beach started soon after desegregation, and Rymer captures well the wrenching, ambiguous emotions many African-Americans still harbor about that moment in U.S. history. He writes that the repression caused by post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws "had a hidden consolation: as blacks lost freedoms and political power, they began building . . . a self-reliant economy." Desegregation, then, caused great upheaval in those communities, leading Rymer's American Beach/black Jacksonville tour guide MaVynee Betsch to declare, "Don't get me started on integration. All they were after was the black man's pocketbook."
Magazine journalist Rymer owns an expert style and a sharp mind, but his prose skews purple here and there, and, as a white man, some of his opinions are clunky (he's as critical of the black teenagers that now crowd American Beach on Sunday afternoons as the town's old-timers). And at times, Betsch--Lewis' great-grandaughter, 1950s-'60s European opera star, and current American Beach character/advocate--proves an unreliable co-narrator, but she and her story are so fascinating, so, well, operatic, that Rymer's choice to lean on "The Beach Lady" is understandable. In the end, when Beach links black and white history, showing how all Americans are caught between progress and the past, Rymer reveals the ocean beyond its shores. (Christopher Skokna)
From Here to Eternity
By James Jones
American novelist James Jones made his bid to own the soldier's experience of the Second World War with this 1951 doorstop debut, and he pulls it off with but a flurry of actual combat. Set at the Scofield Barracks on Oahu, Hawaii, during the months preceding the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Eternity is a soap-opera look at soldiers' routine drudgery. And at this pre-war base, the men spend most of their time terrorizing each other, caring more about nonmilitary activities, and tool around filled with alcohol's false courage and more wanton lust than a pack of college boys on spring break.
Though encompassing a kaleidoscope of characters, Eternity's soul comes via the lives of two in the "Profession." Pvt. Robert E. Lee "Prew" Prewitt is a Kentucky bugle boy and born boxer who enlisted to escape a go-nowhere coal-mining fate, yet his rocky military career makes him suspect he traded being a cog in one life-sucking machine for another. First Sgt. Milton Warden is a hard-ass lifer who keeps his unit gung-ho crisp and tight, but who softens slightly through a torrid affair with the base's unspoken but understood community sex toy, his command officer's wife, Karen Holmes.
Fred Zinnemann's 1953 movie adaptation--with the most famous beach scene in all of cinema--is more renown and regarded as the Eisenhower era's risqué taboo breaker, but Jones' unapologetic novel makes it feel like a tame house cat. Jones' is manly prose, and his clipped, unadorned sentences carve a riveting flow that perfectly suits his storytelling, especially for the physical extremes he subjects his men to. And nobody wrote fights better. Jones does fights the way Jacqueline Susann did sex: in viscerally salacious Technicolor that no movie will ever achieve. (Bret McCabe)
By Lisa Stocker
New Yorker-by-way-of-Indiana Lisa Stocker's first book, last year's P-Town Summer (Kensington Books), opens with two lesbian couples driving down Route 6 on their way to a week away from jobs, families, and complicated lives. P-Town is the nickname for Provincetown, Mass., a Fire Island-style resort town on Cape Cod for lesbians, but also a seaside vacation haven for gay men and, hey, straight people, too. In other words, an ideal place to lose your inhibitions and still feel a part of the world.
Claire and her longtime girlfriend, Rita, have been hitting P-Town for several seasons now, so they are excited but wary about bringing newbies Kit and Sabi along for the ride. Then, Kit's straight friend Diane (but just how straight is she?)--and her lovelorn, single L-word friend Grant--show up to hang out, making it even more difficult to get reservations. But hell, there's nothing like Bloody Marys and coffee for breakfast before midmorning beers, easing into late-afternoon beers, bottles of wine with dinner, and cocktails while dancing to ease the tension and loosen up the ladies' fun-muscles. In a week, Claire checks out Dara, Diane flirts with Tom and Dara, Rita is way-jealous but digs on Becca, Stella comes on to Grant more than once, Grant tries to kiss Diane and Pat, and Sabi just gets pissy.
Slipped in between drunken conversations, silly stories, loving flashbacks, and gossip are sexy descriptions of randy moments between the gals--the ocean isn't the only thing getting these ladies wet--on the beach, in the lawn chair, on the dance floor, in the room, on the couch, etc. Hot. Ahh, a beach holiday. Queer or straight, we all need some loving in the sun. (Wendy Ward)
Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero
By Charles Sprawson
When you put down your book and take a summertime dip, you're not just getting wet, you're steeping yourself in a centuries-old lineage. Or so contends Charles Sprawson, author of 1993's Haunts of the Black Masseur (Pantheon). Not content to attempt a prosaic history of swimming, Sprawson traces Western civilization's cultural relationship with water and splashing around in it for one of the strangest and most erudite beach reads ever to collect sand in the binding.
Sprawson, whose own watery obsession began during his childhood in India during the British Raj--not quite the typical Y pool experience--establishes the roots of swimming culture in the bath-happy idylls of the ancient Greeks and Romans. He then skips over most of the next 1,600 years or so (during which, apparently, people didn't get wet if they could help it) to the rebirth of European aquamania as exemplified by Greek- and Roman-loving literary types such as Lord Byron (famed for crossing the Hellespont, the strait separating Europe from Asia), Percy Bysshe Shelley (who was obsessed with all things liquid, even though he couldn't swim; he eventually drowned), and a flotilla of other sensitive British public-school boys who took to water--and wrote breathlessly about it--like the proverbial duck. From the 18th century on up through the mid-20th century, Sprawson makes a case that swimming provided a fluid source of adventure, inspiration, liberation, isolation, solace, and escape in a world grown increasingly more rigid and less like the golden ages.
The author makes brief, somewhat perfunctory dips into straight history (the evolution of the bathing suit), women's swimming (rare and fraught until the 20th century loosened moral objections), great swimming heroes (the indefatigable Matthew Webb), and the swimming cultures of Germany, America, and Japan. Some of the book's most compelling moments come when Sprawson retraces the wakes of great swimmers, whether it's crossing the Hellespont himself or finding legendary bathing stream after legendary bathing stream reduced to an unappealing trickle by the modern world. But mostly, he burbles on about various literati--from Edgar Allan Poe to Yukio Mishima--who loved to swim and write about it. Haunts of the Black Masseur is no beach-book page-turner, but it's perfect for literate swimming obsessives to slip into now and then when they make it back to their towels. (Lee Gardner)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201