After spending a week at Long Beach Island, New Jersey, I’ve been thinking about what makes a book good for reading at the beach or at the mountains or at any other vacation site. Too often, books labeled “beach reads” tend to be romances, mysteries, maybe thrillers—anything I guess that is largely plot-driven and puts forth a lot more action that ideas. I suppose the theory is that vacation reading is strictly for entertainment. If you’re taking a break from the usual work-a-day world, your brain wants to take a break, too. I’m not so sure.
It seems to me that vacations are the ideal time to give your brain something new to think about. If you’re not struggling with your usual work demands, your brain has lots of time and power to ponder the dilemmas and predicaments that literary and upmarket commercial novels present. The best fictional characters let us live their trials and tribulations without ever leaving our beach blankets or Adirondack chairs.
So, with that in mind, here are a few vacation reads that won’t let your brain atrophy while it’s taking a break from its day job. I pulled them from my list of personal favorites, so if you haven’t read them already, take out your e-reader, or—a plus for outdoor reading—they’re all available in paperback.
The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis. I love this debut novel. It’s the story of Ezekiel Cooper, who goes from being the favored son, the one expected to rise above his small-town roots, to being a lost middle-aged man planning to commit suicide. How he makes this journey, which includes the drowning of his beloved twin brother and a seemingly insurmountable hatred of his mother, and what he chooses to do next make very compelling reading.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Patchett’s most recent novel takes you deep inside the Amazon jungle with pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh to bring home the remains and personal belongings of a colleague who was working there. Finding the remote village where the colleague worked is a challenge in itself, and along the way Marina sheds bits and pieces of her modern-day life until she’s left with only her bare self to face the realizations waiting for her in the heart of the jungle.
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick. I expected this book to be similar to Goolrick’s previous novel, A Reliable Wife, with its dark tone and surprising plot. But Goolrick is not a one-style writer. The first part of Heading Out to Wonderful meanders through the deepening relationship of Charlie Beale, a stranger who wanders into town, and Sam, the young son of the butcher Charlie goes to work for. And as the relationship develops, Goolrick veers into the literary, spilling Charlie’s thoughts and Sam’s thoughts, showing along the way that he can more than handle this kind of fiction, too. But even while he’s exploring ideas, Goolrick is moving Charlie and Sam to a startling climax.
The Submission by Amy Waldman. The Submission will challenge your convictions about how you think people should be treated, about what it means to be loyal to your family and friends, about what it means to be a good leader, and about a host of other issues. The novel’s central dilemma arises when a jury selects a design by an anonymous architect to create a memorial for the victims of a terrorist attack on New York. Only after the decision is announced do they learn the architect is an American Muslim. Should they build the design anyway? Waldman does an excellent job creating a shifting landscape of circumstances that causes the obvious choices between right and wrong to shift, too.