Nothing annoys me more than people who associate summer purely with frivolity and, like, simple pleasures. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Summer is about death. It is about recognizing that what you see as being alive has actually already begun the inexorable march to decay and, ultimately, erasure. But that doesn't mean we can't have some fun while we're still here. It's just that it shouldn't be experienced without always being aware, even if only in the very back of your mind, that we're all going to die someday and that life feels meaningless more often that it does not.
And so: beach reads. I feel about most beach read lists the way I do about people who think summer is only about light and laughter; I hate them. The very best beach reads are actually more like anti-beach reads in that they make you feel cold and gray on your insides even as the world is bright blues and yellows on the outside. (Look, was I the the teenager who brought Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism with me on a tropical vacation? Yes, yes, I was. It gave me... a lot to think about.)
The following is a list of books that I think are perfect for your beach reading needs. Are they all happy and cheery in a way that makes you feel good about yourself and the world? No, not exactly. Except sort of they do. Because they are intelligent and provocative and compelling and heart-rending, and what feels better than knowing that art like that exists? And will continue to exist even after we're all dead and gone. Nothing. Nothing feels better than that.
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Is there any question more pressing, more vexing, more desperately in need of an answer than: How do you solve the problem of being a woman? I mean, it is a problem, right? That's what we're taught to believe anyway, via the constant insidious messages inundating our lives, telling us that it's not okay to feel or look or think or act the way we do, telling us that there are ways we can fix ourselves, empty out all the complications that make us who we are, all the better to just be... nothing, erased.
Erasure is central to Catherine Lacey's exquisite second novel. Main character Mary Parsons has all but erased her past, including leaving behind her birth name (Junia Stone), constantly traveling, because "the first thing you learn when traveling is that you don't exist—I didn't want to stop not existing," and selling off just about every single thing she owns, so that she, a seeming shell of a woman, can live in an apartment as scraped out as she is. Of course, she's also sold off all her worldly possessions to pay for the medical treatment she needs for her chronic, undiagnosed pain, for which the only cure appears to be a mysterious, mildly mystical treatment called PAKing. And in order to pay for that, Mary enters into something called the Girlfriend Experiment (GX), a Hollywood star-conceptualized way of solving the problem of relationships; in other words, the GX attempts to answer the question: How do you solve the problem of being with a woman?
If all of this sounds sort of heavy and dark, borderline nihilistic, well, that's because it is. It's also a profound meditation on the ways in which young women today not only have erasure forced upon them, but also how they erase themselves, all the better to deal with the pain the world visits upon them. Lacey's incisive look into the state of young womanhood today will feel like its echoing in your head and rattling around in the depths of your body long after you've turned the final page and gone running toward the ocean, unsure if you're ever going to want to come back to shore once you've left.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
At once epic and intimate, Gyasi's novel sprawls across centuries, continents, cultures, and generations of one family, cruelly—and unwittingly—torn asunder by the exigencies of an unjust world. The novel sets up a structural dichotomy by following two branches of the same family, whose lives take incredibly different paths; this duality is never so reductive as to be a simple binary however; there is no good or bad path, no hard or easy life. There is only the complications of living in a world that doesn't value so many of its children. Gyasi's novel—astonishingly, her debut—is a feat of storytelling; it's a gripping page-turner, with strong characters and a fast-paced plot, but it's also blessed with a lyrical fluidity that rather than softens, makes clearer both the tragedy and triumph the characters experience. I love this book as a beach read, because, while it isn't an easy story (if it doesn't bring you to tears at least once, I don't really know what to say), but because it so perfectly captures the duality of summer (hey, it is still Gemini season), and the ways in which the brightness of the sun makes the shadows all the darker.
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard
Now, you might be thinking, I thought this list was supposed to be about inappropriate beach reads? What could be more appropriate for the beach than a book about Florida? Well, sure! Florida is very beach-appropriate! And Gerard's book of essays will certainly make you feel things that you might naturally feel while on the beach: aflame, weirdly grounded and light-headed all at once, and like if you just let your mind open up a little bit more you could, for a heartbeat anyway, understand the concept of infinity. (If being on the beach, surrounded by all that sand and all those waves, doesn't do those things for you, well, I just don't know what to say.)
The essays contained within Sunshine State range from a vivid accounting of a best friendship that was made of the kind of hot heat destined to end with an ashy taste in your mouth to well-reported pieces on a Florida animal sanctuary where things aren't exactly as they seem. Each essay is a world unto itself, but they all share the through-line of Gerard's inimitable voice, one we'd happily have accompany us on any beach trip, any time.
Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
You know how there are those days when you've scheduled too much for yourself, like a brunch with one friend and a movie with another and dinner with a third and you're just like omg I need to escape into someone else's mind for a little while, because mine is spinning? Those days are the worst. Luckily, the brilliant mind of Durga Chew-Bose can now be something of an escape in the form of her debut collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood, which is a study in contradictions in the sense that it seems to both exist in the space beneath the noise, while also possessing a roaring thunder all its own.
Anyway, here's what I wrote about it a couple months ago, and trust me, this is the perfect reading companion for the beach or the mountains or the beach and the mountains:There are those books that feel like acts of discovery, the reading of which rents a hole in our shared reality, uncovering elusive truths and recovering the hiding-in-plain-sight secrets of obvious lies. These books serve as a slingshot, only it’s you who are flung out and into new places and new ways of thinking, you who confronts the idea that there is another way to be. And then there are those books that feel like their own form of shelter; they cover you, like a blanket, a flood; you are a stowaway, made static in the silent space between sentences, a blessed spot where you can give yourself some time to just think.
It would seem, maybe, like it would be a contradiction for books to do both of those things at once (or would it? I don’t know; there are also those books who do neither of these things), but it’s not—or, it’s not any more of a contradiction than can be handled. And contradictions, anyway—especially a lot of them, all at once—can be life-affirming, a reminder of the essential conflicts that come with being human.
Suicide Blonde by Darcey Steinke
Oh, why why why doesn't everyone read Darcey Steinke with the reverence she deserves? Maybe that will change, now, with the re-release upon its 25th anniversary of her second book, Suicide Blonde, which centers around a young woman, Jess, in late 20th century San Francisco, who is searching for a way—not out, exactly—but through. She is looking to be born. (The book does, after all, kick off with a reference to "pink walls quiver [that] like vaginal lips," so, you know, the emergency of emergence is key here.) A new introduction by Maggie Nelson extolls the lurid, religious experience level beauty of Steinke's prose, and since summer is the season of ecstatic natural glory and, of course, blondes, I have to insist, really, that you throw this book in your beach bag.
Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
To be quite honest, this book should be read at any time of year, at any time of day, in any state of mind. Johnson, who died in May, is one of those writers who I love introducing people to because I have no doubt, and take no small pleasure, in knowing his writing will wreck them. And what's better than being destroyed by words? These stories center around a drug addict named Fuckhead, and while that might sound like kind of overripe material to be working with, a) summer is all about fecundity, and b) Johnson is a poet first, and so every horrific and heartbreaking and hilarious aspect of the narrative is bathed in the revelatory light and dark and grayness of his words. Okay, go read this now; I'm going to lower myself over a drink like a hummingbird would an upturned nectar-filled blossom. (Read the book!)
You Will Know Me by Meghan Abbott
Nothing screams summer like a good old fashioned murder mystery, right? Of course, Abbott's book is so much more than just a mere whodunit. It's a fascinating meditation on teenage girlhood, and the dark desires and single-minded ambition that accompany this in-between age. Revolving around 15-year-old Devon, a preternaturally talented gymnast, the novel is told from the point of view of Devon's mother, Katie, whose primary focus in life is her daughter, which leads to a fascinating blindness when it comes to Devon's darker aspects. It's a chilling look at our culture's twisted insistence on both sexualizing young women and demanding proof of their purity, and the ways in which we're all complicit in the outcome of such demands.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
What could be more beach read-worthy than a novel set on an island? Nothing. But also, when that island is Jamaica and its complexities and beauties and dark sides are rendered by the brilliant Nicole Dennis-Benn, the novel transcends any simple categorization and just becomes something you really ought to read right away. The writing has a viscerality that makes me feel more alive for having read it, but Dennis-Benn is no slouch in terms of plot; the narrative is chock full of intrigue and secrets and lies, while also serving as a biting look at the issues of wealth, race, class, and gender, as they exist in a tourism paradise. It's the very definition of a must-read, and I can't wait to see what Dennis-Benn does next. (This was her debut! What a talent.)
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Summer is a time for love, right? Maybe even the time for love? So read this beautifully fucked up story of love and desire and friendship and despair, and think about all the ways love ruins us, but how freeing it can be to live it up before the collapse. Here's a little bit of Carson to get you started:When they made love
Geryon liked to touch in slow succession each of the bones of Herakles' back
as it arched away from him into who knows what dark dream of its own, running both hands all the way down
from the base of the neck
to the end of the spine which he can cause to shiver like a root in the rain.
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke
One summer, not so many years ago, I had a summer of death, a summer when I felt scraped out and I was ready to do anything I could to fill myself back up, even if it was just with another person's pain. And so that was the summer I read, oh, so many grief memoirs. The Long Goodbye was one of them, and it's one of the best. O'Rourke is a poet (is there anything poets can't do?), but while her incisive observations of her feelings surrounding her mother's death from cancer are finely wrought, there is nothing precious about them; their clarity pierces, I felt like I was bleeding much of the time I was reading this. But I loved that, the physicality of this book, which also explains what the death of a loved one does to the body of those grieving. O'Rourke explains beautifully the depths, the profundity of true pain, and so if this summer is, in any way, for you as dark as summers past have been for me, consider The Long Goodbye as a balm for the ice cold fire that is living within you.