Last summer was an especially good time for beachcombing. The sea yielded surprising things.
I found lots of fabulous shells including five perfect Scotch bonnets in graduated sizes—a family of sorts to mirror our own. They sit on my kitchen windowsill alongside a tiny, green, plastic dinosaur that I also found in the surf.
But the most surprising find that summer was the golden spoon. My son fished with this flashy lure for days and days and caught a great many fish. (He also helped sell quite a few at the Destin Bass Pro Shop; everyone who saw him reeling things in wanted to know his secret.) He finally lost his lucky lure to a redfish. Then three days later, he and I were walking along the beach late one afternoon and we found a golden spoon washed ashore, a slighted dented yet still shiny present tangled in a patch of seaweed. We like to think it was the very same one he lost. One more surprise from the sea.
I’m packing my beach bag to return. I have a new floppy hat, plenty of 50 SPF sunscreen and enough good books to keep me entertained when I’m not roaming the dune-strewn beaches. On this trip, I’m sticking with fiction, which lets me travel even while sitting in my beach chair. These are the books I’ll have with me:
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
This debut novel was up for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. Alas, it didn’t win … but then, neither did either of the other two finalists. This is the story of Ava Bigtree and her diminishing, eccentric family who are trying—and failing—to run an alligator-wrestling theme park off the coast of south Florida. From the way my reading friends go on and on about this book, “it’s beautiful and creepy!” and “just brilliant!” and “a mystical and really great coming-of-age story,” it surely must be one of the year’s best books.
The River Witch by Kimberly Brock
Novelist Patti Callahan Henry (Coming Up for Air, another great beach book since it’s actually partially set on the coast) told me about this debut novel (a travel-friendly paperback) by Kimberly Brock, who lives in Georgia. The protagonist is 24-year-old Roslyn Byrne, a professional ballet dancer who is broken and grieving after a car accident and a miscarriage. She retreats to the wilderness of a Georgia island hoping to discover a new self, and in this magical setting of old ways and old songs she discovers a great many other things, too.
Fidelity by Wendell Berry
I’ve already read the first of the five absolutely lyrical short stories in this collection, which was lent to me by a dear friend. Berry’s connection to the land and the people who work it and love it is honest and profound and memorable. His sentences are among the most beautiful I’ve ever read. Consider this passage from A Jonquil for Mary Penn: “At his best, Elton was a man in love—with her but not just with her. He was in love too with the world, with their place in the world, with that scanty farm, with his own life, with farming. At those times she lived in his love as in a spacious house.” Published in 1992, this is the kind of book that reminds me that there’s much I might have missed reading along the way, but there’s plenty of time to catch up.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
The manuscript of this debut novel sat in the author’s desk for about a decade before being published this year and landing Charlotte Rogan (57) on The New York Times bestseller list. Her surprising success comes after some 25 years spent writing in secret while her triplets were at school and her husband at work. The Lifeboat is historical fiction set in 1914. Most of the novel takes place on an overcrowded lifeboat. The other parts of this book are set in a courtroom where the main character, Grace Winter, and two other women are on trial for murder.
The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey
“I threw my neck out in the middle of Swan Lake last night.” It’s an intriguing start to the story of Kate Crane, a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company who is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world and, it seems, struggling to keep her sanity, too. She offers an intimate, irreverent insider’s tour of rehearsals and performances. Her dark humor masks a darker situation: Her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, has suffered a breakdown. There’s a question of what role Kate played in her sister’s collapse.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I’ve been meaning to read this novel, and now that it’s newly out in beach-perfect paperback the time is right. The book starts, and I understand it ends, with baseball. But it’s about way more than that. Family, friendship, love and commitment all figure into this story set on a small college campus on the shore of Lake Michigan. The New York Times Book Review named this one of the 10 Best Books of the Year in 2011 saying: “Harbach’s expansive, allusive first novel combines the pleasures of an old-fashioned baseball story with a stately, self-reflective meditation on talent and the limits of ambition, played out on a field where every hesitation is amplified and every error judged by an exacting, bloodthirsty audience.”
Maybe I’ll start with that one. Because soon I’ll be at the beach. And, as is my habit, I’ll read a while and doze a bit and read some more. Then I’ll look up and consider the simple beauty of sugary sand touching turquoise water touching sky-blue sky, and I’ll get up to walk and see what the sea might offer on that perfect day.