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ND Beach Reads

Michael Palmer, The Laughter of the Sphinx
At the beach the other week I saw a sculpture of a sphinx. Children were making eyes out of chalky shells as they pranced back and forth between the water-sand and dry-sand. The sphinx shaped into a squid and “the spirals of summer thought” caught me in a mesh of silent songs reflected in Palmer’s Euclidean light. Or whale light, our companions: the dolphin, the pelican, the cormorant, terns, and gulls, seabirds and the salt breeze crossing the Sound. “...we all, each one, / once thought to become / waves beating, waves retreating...” Yes, this phosphorescent book is made of the beach, receding, “watch as the seas rise, / laugh as the seas rise,” a beach read for the wakeful and dreamers, the sleepers and plotters, the dancers and salt-grinders, the idlers and drinkers, meaning don’t forget the sunscreen, apply liberally, our companions: the salt syllables, sea wrack, “a wave ... frozen in mid-air.” The nude figures between stares. Slow tides. —Jeffrey Yang


Nicanor Parra, Antipoems
I like my beach books with an edge. There’s something about saltwater and sarcasm. That’s why I’d take Nicanor Parra’s Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great. His caustic humor is on display even before you crack the spine. Parra’s deadpan “antipoems” are like a punch in the gut. Just check out his two line “To Be or Not to Be”: “Clara Sandoval used to tell us / then came a hell of a beating.” Kick back, spread out the towel, but don’t get too comfortable. —Gordon Taylor


Alvin Levin, Love is Like Park Avenue
My favorite would be Love is Like Park Avenue by Alvin Levin with an introduction by John Ashbery. This is such a NYC summertime confection. The characters say “swell” and there are sentences like: “She’s beautiful,” he tells me, as if I can’t see.” or “Julie is a fine girl, a beautiful face full and laughing, and a body like God meant it to be a body and no kidding around. A mouth like a steamshovel’s and a vocabulary she didn’t get at the Ethical Culture School.” I don’t know why but they just don’t write them like this any more and more’s the pity…. There’s romance, ice cream cones, and Coney Island. Tennessee Williams thought it was “brilliant," and as Morris Dickstein aptly notes in the blurb on the back there are “sexy vignettes tartly reported from a woman’s point of view.” Plus it’s a collection of short stories and not at all bulky. So you can easily carry it to the beach and read it in pieces, at random even, in between naps and swims. —Laurie Callahan


Clarice Lispector, Near To the Wild Heart
Perfect packing size at under 200 pages. Guided by the narrator’s bright stream-of-consciousness more than any plot, this book is easy to get lost in with your toes in the sand, or to have a transformative experience after a salty swim, if that’s more your style: “When I stood up, it was as if I had been born out of the water. I came out wet, clothes clinging to my skin, hair shining, down.” Lispector’s fresh, penetrating style carries you along at a gallop as you follow the “coltish” Joana’s life story. Brief views of her native Rio occasionally shine through: think sunbursts and sparkling waves. Feel free to glare out at your fellow beachgoers as callously as Joana might—nobody can see your eyes behind your sunglasses. Delaney Adams


Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing
Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing is perfect for any trip to the beach, whether you’re going on a quiet weekday excursion to the Rockaways or to the music-thumping beaches of Ibiza. Read a chapter in between swims, or, better yet, stand along the sandy shoreline, book in hand, and perhaps in a strange type of synesthesia, you’ll experience the salty palimpsest of the cosmos washing over your feet. A few beach-related references might jump out to you: for example, in the sixteenth century the carcass of a famous rhinoceros washed up on a beach in Italy, and “Camels’ feet leave lotus-pad prints in the sand.” But, in fact, you don’t necessarily need to be at a beach at all, because reading Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing is like skinny-dipping inside an encyclopedia. Tynan Kogane


Xi Chuan, Notes on the Mosquito
Last Monday night, on the eve of the full buck moon (named in honor of the month a buck’s antlers sprout fresh), I went for a dip in the scrappy waves of Rockaway Beach. Thick dark seaweed floated on the tide, like hair fished from the bottom of a drain; planes roared low in the sky; the moon loomed. The beach was lit like a movie set. It was bright enough to read the lines, “in my first decade / the moon revealed its silent craters.” Xi Chuan, now in his fifth decade, has discovered, “even ants are afraid of the dark / even stones suffer from insomnia / even the moonlight is polluted blurring our shadows.” To read Xi Chuan is to have a new key, a key to day and night, the sky and the sea. He tells you, “night is the sleep of seven wax moths / dawn is the singing of five mermaids.” If you read Xi Chuan on a beach at dawn you will hear their song. —Mieke Chew


César Aira, Ghosts, Dinner, and Shantytown
I’d pack more than one of these slim, agile books for my beach trip, because they go fast. And that’s a good thing. Aira’s prose is as lucid and bright as a blue sky over sparkling water as he unfolds zany plots that are packed with narrative U-turns, logical inversions, and absurd twists and turns. Like a good magician, Aira always surprises—whether it’s zombies besieging a small town in the Pampas, the strange behavior of phantasmal beings inhabiting a construction site in Venezuela, or a car chase worthy of the Blues Brothers. You’ll laugh your way through these weird little gems, forget whatever you went to the beach to forget, then forget you’re at the beach. —Chris Donahue-Wait


Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth
For those who enjoy the beach for the gritty feeling of the sand beneath their feet, the thrill of getting knocked around by some big waves, or the uniquely ominous pleasure of seeing a storm roll in across the sea, nothing could make better beach reading than Roberto Bolaño's masterful collection of noirish short fiction, Last Evenings on Earth. Bolaño renders gripping tales of lost souls in dark corners, all in deliciously unaffected prose that carries you off like a rip tide—making it somehow all the more appropriate that each story is the perfect length for taking a break between bouts of frolicking in the water. The titular piece is even about the beach in a sense, telling the story of a father-son vacation to sunny (and shadowy) Acapulco gone awry. How much more evocative can you get? —Mariel Farhi


Nathaniel Mackey, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate
Nathaniel Mackey's From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate is a little heftier than the typical beach read but, lacking a single driving plot, the book can be picked up and put down without worry about misremembering or forgetting important details. In a series of short letters, the narrator, N., recounts the meandering revelations of his ensemble jazz group in Los Angeles. N. muses on music, spirituality, and history in playful and expansive sentences that teem with a sense of the cosmic. Plop down on a beach towel and read, but let yourself be interrupted by the sound of the waves and the allure of the sunshine: "the points on the record where the needle skips."—Pat Disselhorst