Pulp Fiction

My Favorite Beach Book

What Scott Turow, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Connelly read on vacation.

With beach season upon us, Slate asked novelists, journalists, and critics an urgent question: What’s your favorite beach book? Confessions were encouraged, and, in some cases, offered—Joan Acocella: “I actually recommend The Da Vinci Code.” Other writers were perhaps less brutally honest, but the array is intriguing. From Anthony Trollope to Elmore Leonard to Graham Greene, the answers are below.

Scott Turow, author, Ordinary Heroes Let me recommend two writers I love to relax with. Greg Iles and Ridley Pearson. Iles’ books— Black Cross and 24 Hours are among my favorites—gallop along but remain psychologically incisive. Pearson writes some of the tightest thriller fiction around. In the deftness of his conceptions, the care with details, and the quality of writing, he’s fully worthy of comparison to Michael Connelly. I loved his last novel, Cut and Run, and his series about the Seattle cops Lou Boldt and Daphne Matthews.

Michael Chabon, author, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
I don’t change what I read when I go to the beach or on a vacation. I just read more. 

Ian Rankin, author, Blood Hunt I was lucky enough recently to meet up with Elmore Leonard in London. Though a huge fan of his crime fiction, I’d not come across his cowboy stories before, and so I picked up his Complete Western Stories. My dad was a great reader of Westerns, and we both enjoyed Wild West films, so I’m looking forward to reading some “Western fiction” for the first time. A bit of a change from a recent vacation—a big-game safari in Kenya. I took War and Peace with me and, sweltering in the tent at night, would read the winter scenes aloud to my wife by flashlight—as near to air conditioning as we could get!

Ruth Reichl, author, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise The most deliciously pleasurable book I’ve read lately is Hilma Wolitzer’s The Doctor’s Daughter. I read it in one great gulp as I flew across the country, and I wish I hadn’t so I could take it down to the beach and read it for the first time.

Rick Moody, author, The Diviners
The Dirt : Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band
by Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Nikki Sixx, and Neil Strauss. While I do not spend my summer months reading degrading and poorly written fiction by Anna Wintour’s former assistants, I have one blind spot in the world of books, and that is bad rock ’n’ roll autobiography. Personally, I think Mötley Crüe never recorded a single decent song, but this is one of the best and trashiest books about the rock ’n’ roll life that I have read. It’s both depressing and hilarious, and when you finish reading Proust in August, I suggest you take a couple of hours to read this.

Geraldine Brooks, author, March Just as one longs for a Popsicle when on the beach, I like to read icy books there. Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal was the novel that put me at greatest risk of sunburn. You’re lying on warm sand, kissed by buttery sunlight, transported by her completely convincing account of snowblind explorers falling to their deaths through cracking ice shelves. The effect is as cooling as a broad-brimmed hat and a fan. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is another transfixing beach read full of freezing imagery as the Everest expedition turns deadly. The only sweat you break is from the unbearable tension of his narrative.

Michael Connelly, author, Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers As soon as summer comes and I have some extra time, I will probably pick up Manhunt by James L. Swanson first. I am fascinated by what is billed as a highly detailed, moment-by-moment account of the investigation of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. I also will need my annual George Pelecanos fix and the early buzz on The Night Gardener is, as usual, quite good. This time Pelecanos takes his readers inside the police department and for me that is a pitch right over the plate. Sometime this summer James Lee Burke will come out with Pegasus Descending, and I will be at the bookstore the first day, just like every summer.

Joan Acocella, critic, The New Yorker
I actually recommend The Da Vinci Code. I stayed up till 3 in the morning to make sure that the demented, knife-wielding albino monk lurking in the bushes outside the chateau didn’t kill Sophie. Or, if the beach is a nice one, take Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The latter is supposedly for “young adults,” but it’s hair-raising and also quite serious. You get to visit hell.  

Michael Kinsley, founding editor, Slate
As a pathetic Anglophile, when I want something mindless to read, I reread Evelyn Waugh. (His novels aren’t mindless, but they don’t tend to reveal even more hidden subtleties after the fifth or sixth reading, so rereading them for the eighth time is pretty mindless.) If I have more time and a bit more mind, it’s Trollope —the most mindless of the big, fat (the books, that is, not the authors) 19th-century Brits. If you’re looking for something really good to read and current, but as gripping as any beach reading, try March, by (occasional Slate contributor) Geraldine Brooks, not to be confused with E.L. Doctorow’s The March, also about the Civil War and also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize this year. Geraldine won. I also recommend Walter Kirn’s hilarious Mission to America, which was recommended to me by Slate’s editor.

Thomas Mallon, author, Bandbox If you want a cheesefest—a whole giant Hickory Farms platter of one—get hold of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Truly lurid, its tales from the stained boudoirs and gamy crypts of Tinseltown are unfailingly cruel; the book wants a reader’s pleasure to be wholly undiluted by guilt, accompanied only by a cackling superiority. True, beach books are supposed to be compact and pulpy, whereas HB is slightly oversized and printed on decent paper. So, just think of it as a pair of vintage trunks instead of a Speedo and go get wet—no, make that slimy.  

Joyce Carol Oates, author, High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006
I never visit beaches except to walk or run, but I do travel frequently, and, on long air-flights especially, take along a duffel bag of bound galleys of upcoming books to read, or read into, in search of a book, and an author, I will want to read in some depth for review. Though my reading is invariably work-oriented, it isn’t any less pleasurable for that reason.  

Diane McWhorter, author, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution Because I’m too much of a self-scolding Calvinist to go in for pure escapism, my perfect beach book would be something like John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which, while it is all about sex and money, also checks in at No. 22 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list. (OK, actually: Pamela Des Barres, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie—truly one of the best books I’ve read about growing up female in the 1960s.)

Lori Lansens, author, The Girls Anita Shreve’s All He Ever Wanted is a haunting tale about an adoring husband betrayed by his young wife. A page-turner, like all of Shreve’s books, the story is told, or confessed, by the tormented husband himself, Nicholas Van Tassel, who acts passionately, even monstrously, when his love is unrequited. Still, my allegiance never shifted from increasingly evil Nicholas, and even as the novel drew to a close I held out hope for his success.

Gary Shteyngart, author, Absurdistan When I’m tanning by the sea I reach for Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. A masterpiece for the ages it ain’t, but there’s tons of booze, chicanery, gigantic behinds, samba, and rather endless permutations on adultery with so-called “mulattas.” It’s about Brazil, in other words. It’s also very, very long. I think I’ve been reading it for the last 20 years.

Stephen Metcalf, critic-at-large, Slate
My favorite work of pulp fiction is, without a doubt, Brighton Rock, an unrelentingly nasty bit of business by Graham Greene. Greene divided his work between literature and “entertainments,” but Brighton Rock splits the difference. It’s the founding document of existentialist noir, and a bloody good beach read.

Jodi Picoult, author, The Tenth Circle
Dirty Blonde
, by Lisa Scottoline—I like to take her books on vacation with me. She’s a really great writer for that genre, with terrific female characters—the only caveat is that I get so involved in the plot that I forget I’m supposed to be watching my kids Boogie-board in the ocean. Shopaholic & Sister, by Sophie Kinsella—Confession time: I picked this up when I was in the U.K. and jet-lagged, and found myself absolutely charmed. When you don’t want to have to think, this is perfect … and Becky Bloomwood, the main character, makes anyone feel better about their own shopping addictions!

Jennifer Egan, author, The Keep, forthcoming August 2006 The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: a mouldering mansion, doppelgangers, a psychopathic family member with a passion for small singing birds—anyone with a yen for the Gothic can expect to lose serious sleep to this one. And the atmosphere of shady decay could prove a welcome tonic for the summer heat. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: A tragedy of manners, morals, and unconsummated love, The House of Mirth never fails to leave me sobbing. This smart, brutal novel about the fate of feminine glamour and beauty in a world run by men and money is all too relevant, and pretty much impossible to put down. The Secret History by Donna Tartt: Many summers ago, I fleetingly considered trying to read Donna Tartt’s first novel while driving in stop-and-start traffic. And her achievement is all the more remarkable because there’s no mystery per se: We know who did what right from the beginning.

George Saunders, author, In Persuasion Nation
For my money, the best beach read is How To Get Sand Out of Your Private Areas, by Hitch C. Groyan. Ha ha! No seriously. The best beach book is I Floated Nearby, Full of Envy by Moby Dick. It’s the heartbreaking, true-life story of a whale who longs to come up on the beach and befriend the wealthy, joyful people he sees there but can’t, because he has no legs and is totally naked. Also, he is a little sensitive about his last name. In the sad conclusion, this cranky guy named Ahab kills “Moby” to make him into lantern oil, only to find that lanterns are no longer used. Then—I haven’t read it in awhile—I think Ahab gets so depressed about the lantern thing that he cuts off his own leg, and then this crocodile keeps chasing him around, and the crocodile learns to fly and decides never to grow up, and asks the audience if they believe in fairies, and then gets arrested for using language insulting to gay people. It’s sad, but it’s also depressing, and really makes you think while totally bringing you down and making you want to have about six more drinks and go for a swim.

Jon Meacham, author, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation I know books are supposed to open new vistas of human experience (and I really mean to get to Proust one day soon), but on vacation I love returning to familiar ground with Trollope’s sequential novels. Last year I finished another jog through the churchy Barchester series, and this winter I started anew on the Pallisers by diving back into Can You Forgive Her? This summer’s treat: Phineas Finn. I suspect I like them because I read them all as an undergraduate, imaginatively populating them with faces I knew in the small Tennessee town where I went to school. Trollope’s comfortable world, with its terrific psychological portraits of great slices of humanity, is a reassuring one, and reassurance on vacation is a pretty good thing.

Daniel Menaker, executive editor-in-chief of the Random House Publishing Group
I am taking three books with me to the (I’m afraid at this point merely metaphorical) beach. One is for a gloomy strand indeed— The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner. It’s a brilliant dismantling of the idea that conscious mental decisions cause physical actions—which I have been trying to finish for four months now. I’m taking it with me because, evidently, I don’t really have a choice. Another is Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, because it’s by Elmore Leonard. (Despite its title, it’s not my biography.) And a book that—full disclosure—my group is publishing, about a pig called Christopher Hogwood, and the town it lived in. It’s called The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery.

Neal Pollack, author, Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel
His Majesty’s Dragon
, Throne Of Jade, and Black Powder War by Naomi Novik: All right, I’ll admit to really grinding up the geek machine. I’m settling in with a trilogy about an air war, with dragons, between England and France in the 1800s. These books, combined with my rapidly disappearing hairline and the presence of my 3-year-old son, will make me the hottest ticket in Malibu this summer.

Liesl Schillinger, writer and critic At the beach, I have a guilty habit of rereading my favorite books from childhood—one favorite is Piers Anthony’s Castle Roogna. In part, this is because, basking in glaring sunshine and surrounded by friends and concealed Coronas, I find it hard to summon the concentration to sink into a new story. My mind continually caroms off the page, vectoring toward thoughts like, “Should I make ginger-lemon tuna steaks tonight, or is it more of a Fort Ouiatenon-pork-chops kind of day?” Rereading old books also makes the days seem longer, since no real “completion” of the book is ever possible. I love the escapism of Castle Roogn a, set in the pun-rich fantasy land of Xanth, where harpies flap their wings and screech, and everyone has a magic talent. Some talents are of “magician caliber”; the heroine, a ghost named Millie, turns out to have “magician caliber” sex appeal. It’s completely stupid, completely satisfying, perfect for 100 degrees in the shade.

David Amsden, author, Important Things That Don’t Matter
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. My gut tells me that Amis would disapprove of being labeled a beach read, but I read this book at the beach when I (much like the protagonist Charles Highway) was a pretentious 19-year-old neophyte obsessed with a girl who didn’t know I existed. I’ve reread this whenever I feel like recapturing that ignorance, which is exactly the point of beach reading: to zone out, to simultaneously forget and remember, to be misguidedly nostalgic about moments that didn’t actually happen. Plus, the novel was made into a perfectly terrible film starring Ione Skye and Dexter Fletcher—the ultimate post-beach rental.

Robert Ferrigno, author, Prayers for the Assassin
Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure
by Frank Arthur Worsley: This account of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition is the perfect antidote for sweating on a sandy beach under an ozone-depleted sky. Shackleton’s brains, courage, and tenacity got his frostbitten men to safety across 3,000 miles of ice and ocean in a couple of lifeboats. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft: Lovecraft’s greatest work, his trademark horror elevated to a sublime adventure. The story of an Antarctic expedition (I see a theme in my selections) gone very wrong. Scientists exploring Antarctica’s Mountains of Madness go missing, and a left-behind journal hints at ancient and terrible things they’ve uncovered. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy: Elroy’s vision of Los Angeles cops in the 1950s is sordid and violent, filled with official corruption, hypocrisy, moral inversion, and the surprising grace that can only grow from the depths of sin. I loved every word of it.

Franklin Foer, editor, New Republic
The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole: A terrific, dishy history of Henry Adams and his circle—which, at times, extended to Teddy Roosevelt, John Hay, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edith Wharton. Although it lacks political sophistication—there’s not much on imperialism, for instance—it’s plenty solid on romantic trysts and other salon machinations. And what else could you possibly want from intellectual history? 

Francine Prose, author, A Changed Man I strongly recommend Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It reads as if Henry James and Danielle Steele had a brilliant baby who grew up to write a novel about social climbing at the start of the AIDS epidemic in England—a book that combines all the deepest pleasures of literature and trash.

Laura Miller, critic, Salon
Purely recreational reading is practically nonexistent in my life. Reading is my job, and when I’m not working I’d rather do something less sedentary. But on those rare occasions when I’m not reading for work, I like to reread the books I loved as a child to remind myself of the pleasures that started me down this path to begin with. Some ( The Phantom Tollbooth) live up to my memories of them. Others ( A Wrinkle in Time) don’t. This summer, I hope to get around to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books.

Thomas Beller, author, How To Be a Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood
The Sheltering Sky
, by Paul Bowles. For me, summer means not light reading but heavy. I discovered The Sheltering Sky in June during an intense fever of serious summer reading (it was preceded by Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier). I read the last pages in one long stretch by the pool, starting at midday and ending in late afternoon, and by then I was alone, and the light was slanting and orange, and I closed the book totally haunted and now think of that cool blue of the empty pool in connection with the desert sky of that book. Something about the juxtaposition of the water and the stillness of where I was and the lost crazy urban mayhem of that last around-the-corner image heightened the whole thing for me.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor, New York Times Book Review
Updike’s Rabbit novels, particularly the last three, are the books I take the sheerest pleasure in reading and rereading. I try to go back to them every year. Perfect for summer is the great Rabbit at Rest with its astonishingly vivid picture of the Angstrom family vacationing in their cheesy Florida condo—the unforced way in which the drama unfolds amid the familiar chaos of comings and goings, desultory (and dismal) meals, TV watching, newspaper reading, golfing, tourist outings. Best is the domestic comedy—the feel of people who know each other too well and are constantly rubbing up against one another, the sudden eruptions of affection or outbursts of sudden rage. Hundreds of pages fly by without a false move or strained moment. And the prose! So densely real but also lushly visual and metaphorical. Each novel also has its glorious literary touches—for instance, the sly punning allusions to Lolita in Rabbit Is Rich. I keep hoping Updike will change his mind and write at least one more novel in the series—even if it’s all about the whiny, grungy Nelson, so long as Rabbit is there to haunt him: Rabbit Resurrected?

Valerie Martin, author, The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories
The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing: Guys won’t kick sand in your face if they see you reading a book by Doris Lessing, especially if they get a look at the title, which is The Grandmothers. They’ll think you’re some kind of arch-feminist beach-crank, but you’ll be enjoying a truly salacious tale. The Grandmothers is all about two friends who go on a beach vacation with their teenage sons. Each, unbeknownst to the other, begins an affair with her friend’s son. Soon all are in the know and just fine about it. The affairs continue through the years, long after everyone involved is old enough to know better. Doris! you’ll be shouting. In your dreams!

For a complete list of recommendations, listed alphabetically by author, click here.