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Great Books to Take to the Beach This Summer

Reading a great book on the beach is one of summer's most sublime pleasures, so we asked Southampton writer, editor, and professor Susan Scarf Merrell for some recommendations. Thanks, Susan!

"That's how I know it's the summer, when Doris is reading War and Peace," says the narrator of Philip Roth's Good-bye Columbus, when he first calls Brenda Patimkin after meeting her poolside at the club earlier that day. War and Peace, huh? Well, why not?

I rarely go to the beach these days—I live here, and I always think I'll get there tomorrow—but summer isn't summer if there isn't a little water in, on, or near your reading list. Up for a challenge? Why not start with Virgil's Aeneid, the Robert Fitzgerald translation? The story of the founding of Rome, nearly 10,000 lines of epic poem written in dactylic hexameter, it's readable and compelling and even funny, and will certainly set you apart from all the Gone Girl readers on the beach. (Though if you haven't read Gone Girl, do it now!)

Another water-based favorite is Ann Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier, a big read that traces a young woman's life in the years following her boyfriend's unfortunate mis-dive into a lake. It's beautifully written, and very human, and I envy you being able to read it for the first time. (If you're the one person who hasn't heard of Meg Wolitzer's delicious read The Interestings, one of this summer's blockbusters, pick that one up, too—both these novels create complete worlds and give you wonderful characters who will not leave you even after the books are long shelved.)

Hamptons vacationers might want to try Ursula Hegi's The Worst Thing I've Done or Kurt Wenzel's literary send-up Lit Life, two marvelous novels set in Sag Harbor. Or the always disturbing Max Frisch's astounding novel Montauk.

If you simply want to laugh, try Shirley Jackson's underappreciated and appallingly funny novel The Sundial, about a to-the-manor-born family preparing for the apocalypse in their own myopic way; if you want to laugh AND cry, go for David Rakoff's Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel.

And my last plug goes to the strangest short story collection ever, Yoko Ogawa's Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales. I don't know whether to describe them as nested, like a Russian doll set, or linked, but these stories start out simply, with odd cumulative recurrences of elements and motifs—a rose, some kiwi fruit, a Bengal tiger—and grow darker and more compelling with each turn of the page. By the end, you're reading breathlessly, wanting to figure out how it all works. Such smart story-telling! Revenge is metafiction at the most accessible level, a cross between Borges and Murakami that should be on everyone's reading list.

And if none of the above appeal to you, you can always copy Doris. No beach read will ever top War and Peace.
Susan Scarf Merrell

Susan Scarf Merrell's novel, Shirley--a literary thriller set at Bennington College in the 1960s, narrated by a young woman who moves with her professor husband into the home of novelist Shirley Jackson and Jackson's husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and who uncovers a chilling connection between the celebrated couple and the disappearance of a young co-ed on campus years before--is forthcoming in Spring 2014 from Blue Rider/Penguin. She is Fiction Editor of TSR: The Southampton Review, and an associate professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook University.