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Sizzlin’ Summer

Literary Lounging

City Paper’s guide to non-embarrassing beach reads

Photo: Illustration by Deanna Staffo, License: N/A

Illustration by Deanna Staffo


On a scorching summer day, there is nothing like sitting by a body of water (be it ocean, lake, river, or pool) with a cool drink and a thoroughly engaging book. Traditionally, beach reads are considered entertaining garbage, something even the most heatstroke-addled mind can handle, with a literary value roughly equivalent to the nutritional content of a sno-ball. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of fun, engrossing, and even titillating books that will pull you in despite the rising Fahrenheit, without lowering your IQ. So even if all you have is a kiddie pool filled with Baltimore tap and a coolish Natty Boh to help you beat the heat, you can kick back with one of these beach reads and focus on relaxing instead of trying to hide some trashy mass market in a copy of The New Yorker.

Lightning Rods

Helen DeWitt (New Directions)

For many people, summer reading constitutes a much-needed retreat from the corporate world of cubicles and deliverables and HR and compliance. Helen DeWitt’s criminally undersung 2011 comic novel plunges into it up to the scalp and emerges with a sly satire of America’s obsession with business, achievement, and, of course, sex. Protagonist Joe is taking his mind off his failures as a salesman with one of his elaborate masturbatory fantasies when he’s struck with a visionary notion of how to address and defuse sexual harassment in the workplace and make piles of money—it involves anonymous intercourse, handicapped toilets, and tight leopard-print skirts. Constructing her prose almost entirely out of business-speak clichés and Dale Carnegie banalities, DeWitt’s tone is so perfectly dry and deadpan and her story so perversely elaborate that the idea behind Joe’s start-up begins to seem kind of plausible, especially since it leads to improved productivity, happy relationships, and at least one new female Supreme Court justice. A book to share for sure, though maybe not at the office. (Lee Gardner)

Life

Keith Richards (Little, Brown and Company)

The title is a little misleading. It’s not your life. Not unless your cocaine is pure Merck pharmaceutical, or you invent a new sound on the Telecaster that no one can reproduce, or you eliminate annoyances by putting a knife into a wall two inches below someone’s balls from across the room, or your bandmate’s model girlfriend suddenly decides that you need a blowjob while you’re watching the Spanish countryside blur by from the backseat of a Bentley, or you occasionally split your French Riviera digs and cruise over to Italy for lunch in a speedboat—named “Mandrax” after your favorite barbiturate—that you don’t really know how to drive. It can’t all be true, not even for Keef. But this summer, as you’re soaking up the sun while watching the jet skis go by on Maryland’s Redneck Riviera, it’s not hurting anybody to pretend that’s what life really is. (Lawrence Lanahan)

A Song of Ice and Fire

George R.R. Martin (Bantam)

Admitting love for a fantasy series with such a title—and with such cheesy covers now that HBO has released Game of Thrones, based on the first book—can be humiliating. But once you’re immersed in Martin’s engrossing, full-blown world, you won’t care. These books don’t traffic in typical fantasy fluff. Sex, violence, incest, power-mongering, and other all-too-human behaviors are more the thing here than dragons or giants. Martin has been parsing out the series, which now numbers five, over the course of 15 years. It’s a testament to the enthralling power of his writing that, as a result, some of his biggest fans actively seem to hate him; more than one blog is solely dedicated to taunting him for his plodding pace. Extreme perhaps, but a lesson lies therein: Do not start reading Ice and Fire unless you are ready for a commitment. Prepare to alienate friends and family by preferring the books to their conversation, and be ready for a good deal of heartache—Martin has no qualms about killing off beloved characters in horrifying ways. And then there’s the sense of loss that comes over you as you close the cover on the final book. It’s all worth it. (Andrea Appleton)

Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote is generally thought of as the first real novel, but it is not the first novel that pops to mind when you think about summer reading and the sweltering heat makes it easy to reach for the trashy. But Don Quixote is the reason we think about the heat and trashy literature the way we do. Quixote is driven mad by his summer reading. His squire, Sancho Panza, is infected by his boss’ reading, but he constantly returns to the more earthy pleasures of wine, food, and sleep. Like Sancho Panza, we are drawn away from this big book by the laughter it provokes. We put it down to fart and eat and drink and frolic, but the book’s great vision of humanity always draws us back. (Baynard Woods)

Crime Partners

Donald Goines (Holloway House)

Crime Partners, Death List, Kenyatta’s Escape, and Kenyatta’s Last Hit, street-lit innovator Donald Goines’ novels featuring utopian crime lord and cult leader antihero Kenyatta, deserve a fancy Modern Library edition—preferably with an introduction co-authored by pimp slap rapper Snoop Dogg and Blood Meridian and Moby Dick fetishist Harold Bloom. For now though, this oft-ignored great American exploitation novel is spread across four chintzy paperbacks. And perhaps that’s more appropriate for a story that begins with ground-level thug betrayal, wanders from Detroit to Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and, along the way, molts into a trashy, ultraviolent rumination on Black Power fallout. What’s become known as Goines’ “Kenyatta tetralogy” (the final book was published posthumously after Goines and his wife were gunned down in their Detroit home) remains some of the most poignant pulp not yet discovered by fiction fiends on the look-out for cheap, strong stuff. (Brandon Soderberg)

Original Bliss

A.L. Kennedy (Knopf)

It’s an awkward book to recommend to people. I mean, who would consider a novel about a relationship between an insomniac victim of severe domestic abuse who has lost her faith and a slick-talking self-help guru with a serious pornography problem (and, naturally, a penchant for masturbation) a romance? But somehow Booker Prize-nominated Scottish author A.L. Kennedy (who is also a standup comedian) manages to give both gravitas and a sense of the absurd to this quirky, shocking, and yet oddly moving story of Mrs. Brindle and Edward Gluck. Original Bliss is summer reading sex and violence Glaswegian-style, but with a literary and ultimately deeply sympathetic twist. (Mary Zajac)

The Passage

Justin Cronin (Ballantine Books)

Vampires these days have lost their groove, what with the rise of defanged and tame nosferati like Edward Cullen or True Blood’s Bill Compton. For those looking for a more frightening variety of fiend, Justin Cronin’s 2010 tome The Passage (the first in a planned trilogy) brings the goods. Although the premise is nothing especially new (a secret government program accidentally unleashes a plague that turns its victims into mindless glow-in-the-dark bloodsuckers), Cronin keeps things fresh by setting the majority of the story in North America 100 years after the outbreak. The end result is a creepy page-turner that’s more akin to The Road than The Walking Dead. Check it out now before the sequel drops in October. (Max Robinson)

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack

Mark Leyner, (Little, Brown and Company)

Fortysomething Jersey boy Ike Karton is an unemployed butcher with an overindulgent pervy sex streak who finds himself the chosen one of the soap-opera lusty and party-as-a-verb gods who created/control the universe in this utter Napalming of celebrity culture and American “values.” Mark Leyner, the most comically pyrotechnic of early 1990s postmodern writer dudes, returns with his first novel in nearly 15 years, and while his torso-splitting satire remains laser-surgery sharp, what’s surprising is how emotionally potent Nutsack is as well. Borderline incomprehensible with more absurd laughs per page than Mitt Romney’s foreign policies. (Bret McCabe)

Our Tragic Universe

Scarlett Thomas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

If you’re looking for a fast, quirky piece of meta-fiction for the summer, Our Tragic Universe, which straddles a thin line between the real and the unreal, is the one to stuff in your beach bag. Meg Carpenter, the story’s often lofty (yet relatable) protagonist, is a ghostwriter for genre fiction who aspires to write a “real” novel. She constantly creates and destroys the work she puts into her “real” novel, until she is left with nothing, and then begins afresh, mimicking one of the central concepts of Our Tragic Universe, the “Omega Point.” Scarlett Thomas has the reader pulling out a magnifying glass at every turn in attempts to decipher even just one of her countless motifs, only to realize that the ideas are too big to analyze, which can be frustrating at times. Meticulously planned, intelligent, whimsical, and strangely beautiful, the novel covers topics that range from failed marriages to fairies, and while meta-haters might naysay this one, in the end most readers will find themselves swimming in their own cerebral fluid, confused, but intrigued. (Winnie Au)

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