Great thing about writing/living on Maui #1,573: Even as Mainland publications are churning out lists of books to read while you’re huddled under an electric blanket riding out the latest blizzard, we get to talk about beach reading. Because, the odd passing shower aside, January is as good a month as any to grab a towel and paperback and head for the nearest stretch of sand. Somewhere along the way, it was decreed that beach books had to be bad, or at least trashy and light on substance—the kind you buy in line at the grocery store with a picture of the actors from the film adaptation on the cover. But here’s a news flash: a book can be both good and fun to read. Counterintuitive as it may seem, those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Exhibit A: This diabolical little gem about two married circus performers who ingest various chemicals so that their offspring can star in the freak show. There’s Arturo, the boy with flippers; Olympia, a diminutive hunchback albino; the Siamese twins, Elly and Iphy; and a telekinetic baby named Chick. If all this sounds twisted and strange, that’s because it is. But it also manages to be surprisingly sweet and, above all, eminently readable.
OK, this one may seem painfully obvious but, no, I didn’t pick it just for the title. While you’re probably more familiar with the Leo DiCaprio movie of the same name, the book is, as always, far superior. (I say that as someone who loves movies; it’s just that rarely does literature translate to cinema without unavoidable awkwardness.) The simple plot follows a disaffected young Brit raised on video games and war movies as he bounces around Southeast Asia under a ratty backpack, simultaneously trying to find himself and to disappear. Through a rather gruesome turn of events he gets his hands on a map that supposedly shows the way to an unspoiled paradise, cut off from the neon bleakness of humanity. He follows the map (duh) and what he discovers is better—and worse—than he could have imagined. This is one of those books that works on two levels: as a devour-it-in-two days page-turner and as a cautionary tale about the aimless post-counterculture/Vietnam generation, which inherited the rebellious spirit of its forebears but didn’t know who or what to rebel against. So seriously, I didn’t just pick it for the title.
The Sun Also Rises
If you’ve never immersed yourself in Hemingway’s machine gun prose, this is a great place to start. If you read him a lot back in college but haven’t done more than thumb through his short stories since, this is a wonderful refresher course. And if you’re a rabid devotee of the bearded one who has memorized The Old Man and the Sea and became an alcoholic just to honor Ernie, this book is like the perfect appetizer, a light snack that’s great on the go. Not to say what many critics refer to as Hemingway’s first “major novel” is “light” in any traditional sense. Like all the authorworks it’s straightforward only in style—its subtext is rich, its characters complex and its messages and morals, such as they are, multifaceted. This is that rare “classic”: a book you can consume quickly and without a graduate degree or a Thesaurus, but one that demands multiple readings to peel back all the layers. Speaking of peeling: don’t forget your sunscreen. MTW