The Wilson Quarterly isn’t known for its light fare, but as the calendar wends its way toward July, we too are thinking about what books to throw into our backpacks and suitcases for jaunts to the beach and other summertime destinations. Below are some books that we recommend for their ability to stimulate your mind and keep your attention amid all of the distractions of the season—whether they’re bouncing beach balls, mosquitoes, or snoring fellow travelers.
Steven Lagerfeld: I gave up extended beach vacations a few years ago partly because I found it impossible to get much reading done. Surf, sun, sights—who wants to read Hegel? Now I see I should have picked reading better suited to the dreamy, distracted seaside. If I were going tomorrow, I’d take along a stack of my favorite magazines—perfect for (relatively) bite-sized reading—and some poetry. Right now I have a 150th anniversary edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on my bedside table. That goes into the beach bag. I’ve always wanted to read Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems (2004). It was Joseph Brodsky’s marvelous short WQ essay on Zbigniew Herbert that made me realize I’d made a mistake in ignoring poetry, but I’ve never gotten around to Herbert’s Collected Poems: 1956–1998. Then, returning to reality, I’d pick up Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, which I’ve been eager to read.
Rebecca J. Rosen: Pasta. It’s so simple and satisfying; we give it little thought. But not New Yorker staff writer Bill Buford. Here is a man who has not just thought about pasta but obsessed about it, and then shared the fruits of his culinary pursuits with the lucky readers of his 2006 foodie romp Heat. For the book, Buford went behind the scenes to work for some of the most demanding Italian chefs in the world, and he describes their mania and passion with glee and admiration. Heat is a wild ride, fun for those who love food and those who love plain good writing.
I guess I’m stuck in an Italian theme because my other recommendation is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italian novelist Italo Calvino. I picked this book up after loving Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, who has said Calvino’s work inspired his own. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the only book I’ve read in which the reader is addressed as a character in the plot of the book itself, and the narration traces not just the plot developments, but the experience of reading them as well. It’s a great treat for summer.
Sarah L. Courteau: Daniel Woodrell’s work has been getting long overdue attention since a terrific indie film adaptation of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone came to the big screen last year and won four Oscar nominations. Set in the meth-ravaged communities of the Missouri Ozarks, Winter’s Bone is the story of 16-year-old Ree Dolly, whose father, arrested on drug charges, puts up the family farm for his bail bond and then goes missing. Ree looks after her two little brothers and her mother, who’s seen enough trouble that her mind has stopped working, and it’s up to her to save the land and her family. Her journey is a modern epic of brute survival played out where the code of blood trumps the rule of law. It’s a terrific book, but it’s not exactly a beach read.
For that, turn instead to The Bayou Trilogy, a trio of early Woodrell novels reissued this spring by Mulholland Books on the momentum of the Winter’s Bone publicity blitz. Woodrell got his start 25 years ago penning noir tales featuring an ex-boxer named Rene Shade, who polices the streets of his fictional Louisiana parish, St. Bruno. The town is peopled by his own ne’er-do-well family and old childhood friends, and Shade’s pledge to uphold the law is constantly tested by old allegiances and various corrupt officials. The dialogue is pungent, the violence is liberal and colorful, and the dysfunctional Shade family that emerges by the end of the third novel, The Ones You Do, is so fascinating in its own right that it threatens to edge out the crime plots. I guarantee you’ll be turning pages faster than a minnow can swim a dipper.
James Carman: Basil Pascali, the protagonist of Barry Unsworth’s short, gripping novel Pascali’s Island (1997), is a spy for the sultan in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. From his remote outpost on an Aegean island, he’s been sending reports to Istanbul that no one reads for years. Lately, nervous about losing his much-needed pay, he’s begun “embellishing” his messages, weaving elaborate fictions about the comings and goings of foreigners. But the actual arrival of a mysterious English archaeologist, who soon wins the affections of the woman Pascali has had his eye on, as well as a wealthy German, Herr Gesing, set into motion a web of intrigue stranger than anything Pascali could ever imagine. Unsworth deftly evokes the historical setting while building intricate moral entrapments for his characters, Pascali most of all. Will he do the right thing? The better question—a twist that Graham Greene would have appreciated: Will Pascali recognize the right course when he sees it?
Megan Buskey: My recommendation is The November Criminals, Sam Munson’s debut novel. You’ll be quickly drawn into the pot-smoke-filled world of Addison Schacht, a high school senior (and nominal weed dealer) hailing from Washington, D.C., who becomes obsessed with the unsolved murder of one of his classmates. The gruff and acerbic Schacht is reflective and intelligent in spite of himself (he likes to translate The Aeneid in his spare time) and he rises above your average discontent teenage protagonist with subtle demonstrations of vulnerability and doubt. He’s a wonderful guide through the maze of moral questions that arise as he attempts to piece together the puzzle of his classmate’s death. Even with the ocean beckoning you, you won’t be able to take your eyes off this book until you’re done.
John Cheng: Junot Diaz’s acclaimed novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, makes for perfect leisurely reading, although it is a serious work of fiction. I came across it while browsing a little bookstore in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City on a listless summer afternoon last year, and it was welcome respite from the reams of (often dry) social science literature I read as a politics major in college. What may very well be Diaz’s magnum opus renewed my interest in fiction.
The eponymous Oscar Wao is an obese, first-generation Dominican-American youth who struggles with being a social outcast. His endearing obsession with science fiction marks him as a nerd through his college years (and beyond), crimping his ability to establish either meaningful friendships or sexual relationships. Only two people mitigate the profound isolation of Oscar’s existence—Lola, his ambitious older sister, and Yunior, Lola’s erstwhile boyfriend and a mentor of sorts to Oscar. Belicia, the family’s stern matriarch, is an orphan who fled the Dominican Republic for New Jersey after being severely beaten for antagonizing the ruthless U.S.-backed Trujillo dictatorship.
Oscar Wao incorporates references to comic books, hilariously detailed and sassy footnotes on Dominican history, and aspects of magical realism—the narration, largely channeled through Yunior’s perspective, attributes the woes of Oscar and his family to fuku, an ancient Dominican curse. If that’s not enough to persuade you to pick it up, know that Diaz’s vibrant, witty, and Spanglish-filled prose is an absolute pleasure to read aloud—perfect for long car trips.