Summer Reading Issue
What are your recommendations for great vacation reads?

Book World Editors
Tuesday, June 16, 2009 12:00 PM

Bathing suit, check. SPF 70 sunscreen, check. Cold drink, check. Beach read, uh oh.

Don't know which book to pack in your beach bag? Book World editors Rachel Hartigan Shea, Ron Charles and Dennis Drabelle were online Tuesday, June 16 at Noon ET to discuss books new and old, trashy and enlightening, those best for a cool mountain retreat or more suitable for a European jaunt. What are your recommendations for great vacation reads? And where you were when you read them?

A transcript follows.


Rachel Hartigan Shea: Happy summer (or almost summer), everyone! We've received a lot of excellent suggestions for summer reading which we'll post throughout the hour. And we've also got some intriguing questions. So let's get started!


New York, N.Y.: I'm a grown-up fan (in age anyway) of the Twilight series -- any recommendations on popular new series for YA readers that adults can enjoy as well?

Ron Charles: Have you read Susanna Clarke's wonderful "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"?


Anonymous: What are new gay books that are recommended?

Dennis Drabelle: Does it have to be a new gay book? Not many of these are being published anymore, mostly, I think, because the great gay storyline -- coming out -- isn't such a big deal anymore and has been done to death. But here's a classic you may not have read: Michael Campbell's Lord Dismiss Us, set in an English boarding school. You can find used copies online, and it's well worth doing. A masterpiece!


Tucson, Ariz.: Do you all know of any good trashy thriller/suspense books to take along that both men and women will like, so we can trade off and reduce baggage?!

Dennis Drabelle: Hmm. Trashy, eh? What kind of people are you? But seriously I would recommend such not so trashy thrillers as Road Dogs, the new one by Elmore Leonard, and The Stalin Epigram, by Robert Littell.


Washington: Unfortunately, I wont be able to participate during the chat -- I have a work meeting during the time but I really want to get my recommendation out there! Well, its 2 recommendations, really -- Honeymoon With My Brother and How the World Makes Love, both by Franz Wisner. Both are amazing books about Franz traveling the world with his brother -- in the first book he is trying to get over the fact that his wife left him at the altar and in the second book he just wanted to travel again! I love them and they are perfect for a vacation.

Ron Charles: Thanks for your recommendation. I haven't read Wisner, but those sound good -- a modern-day "Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers."


Centreville, Va.: Imagine my delight as I folded back the sports section and discovered BOOK WORLD! I said "WOW! Book World!" I read the entire thing. Ahhhhh...contentment. Is Book World back or is this just a cruel tease? Please, oh, please bring Book World back.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: We've never left! We're just in different parts of the paper now (Outlook on Sundays and Style the rest of the week), which means there are book reviews in every edition of the paper. But we were glad to be back in tabloid form last Sunday, and we'll be doing those special issues periodically. The next one is Sept. 20 for the National Book Festival.


Hanover, N.H. (by way of Brandywine, Md.): Why do you think George Pelecanos is not more widely known? Are his books too D.C.-centric? I went to a reading featuring Pelecanos and Michael Connelly in Boston and most of this very literate crowd had never heard of Pelecanos.

Dennis Drabelle: This is surprising. Pelancos is certainly known among literate thriller readers. I just noticed, for example, that New York Review Classics has asked him to introduce its reissue of a classic 1970s suspense novel, Don Carpenter's Hard Rain Falling.

_______________________ George Pelecanos's "The Way Home"


Gaithersburg, Md.: My current summer read is "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde" by Jeff Guinn.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: This seems to be the season of Bonnie and Clyde. We've got a review of Guinn's book, plus another one by Paul Schneider here.


Pennsylvania: Have you read "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!" I think I might have to read this--the Amazon reviews are pretty favorable, even from Jane-ites.

Ron Charles: I confess: I thought P&P&Z was pretty funny, though the joke does run on a bit long. If you like over-the-top gothic stuff, take a look at Andrew Davidson's "The Gargoyle." (I think Marie Arana was scandalized by my sophomoric enthusiasm!)


Washington, D.C.: I'm looking for (preferably) a recently-published book that's complex, with multi-racial or multi-national characters, humor, and challenge that is ultimately uplifting. It could be from the U.S. or another country. Any suggestions from the editors or readers? Thanks!

Ron Charles: Try Chris Cleave's Little Bee (horrible title, great novel) about a white British couple caught up, in the most personal way, with the civil strife in Nigeria.


Vienna, Va.: My most memorable summer book: Darwin's "Origin of Species," read on a job that required me to sit in a Quebec forest all day. It's one thing to read natural history sitting in a room, and entirely another to read it while listening to birds call and to leaves rustling around you.

Dennis Drabelle: I once read Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, set in pharaohs' Egypt, on the northern tip of Baffin Island. Quite a contrast!


Bethesda, Md.: The tabloid version of Book World is sorely missed and brought home especially by Edward Hirsh's poetry column on the subject of "saudade." For my summer reading, could you recommend books along that theme? I've read Proust and Lampedusa, and the poetry of Wordsworth -- all with strong currents of "saudade." The books you recommend do not have to be of such high literary merit -- but something that touches our sense of longing for what is lost.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: I recently read The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton, which was published in 1962 and recently republished. It's a family saga that evokes early 20th-century Missouri with that undercurrent of melancholy or yearning that saudade seems to be speak to.


Washington, D.C.: I've self-published a mystery based on short stories that appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, MAMMOTH anthologies and elsewhere. How can I submit it for review to a WP book editor?

Ron Charles: Sorry, at this time, we don't review self-published books. As it is, we're getting about 150 books a day. If we opened up to self-published material, we'd be even more overwhelmed. Regrets.


New York, N.Y.: What short story collections would you recommend?

Dennis Drabelle: The Library of American has just published an omnibus volume of John Cheever's stories, and for my money he's the best short story writer America has ever produced. I've heard good things about the new volume by Wells Tower.

Ron Charles: New York: We've got a short story roundup coming up that says Joyce Carol Oates's new collection, "Dear Husband," is excellent. And of course, we ran a great review of John Updike's last collection in Sunday's special issue of Book World. Review here.


Topsail Beach, N.C.: Anyone think Hemingway's Islands in the Stream, especially the section on the Bahama island of Bimini, would go good for the beach?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Readers, what do you say?


Germantown, Md.: Help! I can't take a vacation this year! So, I need some recommendations that make me feel like I'm getting away...even when I'm just sitting there waiting for the Red Line.

Oh, and at Ron Charles -- love your tweets!

Dennis Drabelle: I don't tweet, so I can't very well feel jealous of your love for Ron's. As for travel books, how about the classics of Wilfred Thesiger? Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs? He gives you intense portraits of societies with ancient roots just before those societies were changed forever by the 20th century.


New York: Take William Kennedy's novels on vacation with you. He is criminally underrated.

Ron Charles: Agreed. He's devastating. Maybe not how I want to feel on vacation, though....


Arlington, Va.: What will the three of you be reading on a beach blanket this summer?

Dennis Drabelle: I want to reread George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I read decades ago but probably too young. Time to see what my old-coot self thinks of it.


Atlanta, Ga.: After reading the review for competing "Annotated Wind in the Willows" books, I became intrigued... but which book is best for someone whose only experience with "Wind in the Willows" is the ride at Disneyland?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Both are beautiful erudite books, but if you just want to read the story, go by the illustrator you like best. My four-year-old and I opted for the Ernest Shephard (Winnie the Pooh) version.


Albany, N.Y.: I'm probably sorta weird, but I'm a geek who reads a lot of history and biography and doesn't mind lugging big fat books to the beach. Any suggestions?

Dennis Drabelle: Well, you can't get much bigger, fatter, or better (at least according to our reviewer) than The First Tycoon, the new bio of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T.J. Stiles. A lot of 19th-century American history was encompassed by Vandy's life and financial dealings.


Philadelphia, Penn..: Okay, here's something for you. Looking for: 200 words or less for a gripping historical nonfiction book and also, a great new graphic novel/series that works with known superheroes, preferably from D.C. Comics. Thanks!

Rachel Hartigan Shea: For exciting historical nonfiction, try "The Lost City of Z," about the 19th-century quest to find a vast city in the Amazon.


Infinite Jest: Have you heard about the blog that is challenging people to read Infinite Jest this summer? They propose a 75 page/week pace, which I thought was slow until I started reading it last night. Although very well written so far, it's a whole lotta book. I'll be reading it for the next couple of weeks if only to help tone up my arms for the beach.

Dennis Drabelle: I should probably join this effort. Infinite Jest has been taunting me with its big fat self on my bookshelf for several years, and in honor of Wallace's untimely end I ought to read it. Doing it as part of a cybergroup sounds likely to get someone like me actually to read it.


Hey, Ron Charles!: Question for Mr. Charles, and the others, too, if they care to chime in.

First, you mentioned in your missive to Dave Eggers you said the paper version of "Book World" was well loved by readers, but the online reviews don't get much traction. Can you quantify that?

Also, I recommended "The Signal" to my Book Club as a guy's choice, because I'm the only guy in the club. They selected it for this fall. Yay!

Ron Charles: Our masters guard traffic data like it's Don Graham's genetic code. If I revealed even what little they tell me, I'd be immediately shot.

So glad to hear you'll get your book club to read The Signal. (Women, of course, will enjoy it, too. I was just trying to get some attention from the guys with that review.)


Columbia heights, D.C.: My favorite beach read was Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. The exotic locale was perfect for the hot summer. A really fun story.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: A reader recommendation...

Ron Charles: Yardley loved "Bangkok 8": "Beautiful and mysterious; its plot is labyrinthine and surprising; its ending is ambiguous and ironic....You make your way slowly, painstakingly through 'Bangkok 8,' because you don't want to miss a thing."


San Francisco, Calif.: Just finished a great first novel to recommend for a summer read, "The American Painter Emma Dial" by Samantha Peale, Norton. This book is a uniquely female story and goes to great pains to contrast a woman's creative process to a man's. It looks at how women are either hard wired or culturally programmed to subvert their own creative process to serve a man's "greater" needs. And it asks the question if maybe New York is really just a huge male construct that breaks women and their creativity down. It really bore into the psyche of what it means to create and fear creation-- it examined lack of ambition and the worry we share when we cannot bring ourselves to do what we know we can. It opened up the corruption of art by business and maybe most important to me, it really took apart female sexual infatuation. It broke down Emma Dial's attraction to a prominent artist from the generation ahead of Emma and how it paralleled her reawakening as an artist. There was nothing easy about Emma's process, even though I kept thinking the author would take the easy way out several times along the way, she didn't.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: And another one. You all are good.


Vero Beach, Florida: What IS "summer reading"? How is this different from rest-of-the-year reading? The implication of summer reading lists seems to be that there is more time for reading in the summer (true?) or --sometimes -- that lighter reading is possible in summer. The latter suggests that readers have taken on deep, heavy stuff in the winter and are due for some relaxation/relief from weightiness.

Dennis Drabelle: You're right. There is a sort of contradiction in the way we think about summer reading. On the beach, we seem to want light stuff: thrillers, romance, that sort of thing. After hours, or in the mountains or the backcountry, we have time to curl up with one of those strapping tomes we can't quite seem to find the time for during the rest of the year. So you have to choose your summer mindset (and locale) before you can narrow down your selections.


Munich, Germany: Once, while on the tiny island of Mauke in the South Pacific, I read "Call of the Wild" while sitting on the beach. On Mauke, the closest thing to howling wolves were the scuttling crabs. I think that I reached for the book on the bookshelf because of memories of a great childhood read.

Do you have any similar suggestions for sweltering summer days?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: I would absolutely recommend Dan Simmons "The Terror." It's a novel about John Hope Franklin's expedition to the Arctic. The ships become ice-bound, all their canned food becomes poisonous, and as if that wasn't bad enough, there's a monster roaming the ice. Sounds a little overboard, but very exciting. And chilly.


Myrtle Beach, S.C.: I won't be able to make the discussion but I thought I'd add my two-cents worth on the subject of summer reading. For me, Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth and World Without End should be at the top of the list. I'm usually not a big fan of fiction but these two really grabbed me and kept me enthralled. Be prepared to put aside other, more mundane tasks because you will constantly look forward to getting back to where you left off...they're long but worth it. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I'm looking for a sequel.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Thanks for the recommendations!


Jersey City, N.J.: Could you recommend a Saul Bellow novel for my book club? We're a demographically-balanced club (which means we actually have male members), and we're pretty adventurous. Actually, any recommendations for 20th Century classics would be greatly appreciated.

Dennis Drabelle: The Adventures of Augie March is the Bellow book that comes first to mind. As for other 20th century classics, that's a pretty large field, but here a couple of favorites that should appeal equally to men and women: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, and The Octopus, by Frank Norris.


Brookline, Mass.: As a parent it's much harder to read on the beach because the kids are often boogie-boarding a little beyond their swimming skill level. So I like to "lifeguard" at the water's edge and listen to audio podcasts of short stories (i.e., from PRI's Selected Shorts) or author interviews and readings (KCRW's Bookworm, NPR's Fresh Air, New Yorker: Fiction, etc.) and even to newsy lit podcasts like WaPo's Bookworld podcast (all of the above are free). I figure I'll toss the iPod if I have to rescue somebody. But when I get to delegate the lifeguarding, my idea of beach reading heaven is reading anything by Edith Wharton or Kate Christensen on Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet.

Ron Charles: Thanks for listening to the Book World podcast!

Did you catch our audio books review in Sunday's special issue?


St. Louis, Mo.: Excluding anything to do with vampires, what is your pick for a great young adult read this summer?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Last Sunday, one of our kids' books reviewers recommended Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen, about an uptight girl's summer mellowing, and The Twilight Prisoner, by Katherine Marsh, about a kid who can travel to the underworld beneath NYC. No vampires at all.


Toronto, Ontario: Opportunity Rings by Sheryl Steinberg is a great summer read. As a career women who was single for a long time, I could really relate to it, but I've also talked to men who enjoyed it. It's lots of fun a la Sex and the City.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: And another recommendation...


Ron Charles: Brainy teens might really like The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen. My daugther's friends were actually fighting over it! I thought the ending was dreadful, but I loved it till then.


Aiea, Hawaii: 'South of Broad' by Pat Conroy doesn't come out until August 11th, but it will be very worth the wait. I love Pat Conroy's work.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: There's a lot of excitement building about this one.


Great summer reading: One of my most enjoyable summer reading experiences was reading "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr while on a beach vacation in the Bahamas. I also recommend anything by Stephen King for summer reading (or spring, fall and winter!).

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Nothing like a shadowy 19th-century murder mystery under the hot sun.


Ashburn, Va.: Books vs. Sony Reader or Kindle? Anyone opting to load up their electronic reader rather than taking actual (gasp!) books? No offense, I love "real" books too.

Ron Charles: Since I have to take marginal notes on everything I read, I haven't made the leap to an e-reader yet. But this month, for the first time, I'm starting to see people with them on the subway.


Bellingham, Wash.: Book reads: trip to Europe -- great expectations, Cruise -- any solo circumnavigation memoir, Seattle -- Ridley Pearson, SoCal -- Dean Koontz, Jersey (yeah, right) -- Janet Evanovich, Alaska -- Yiddish Policeman's Union.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: As someone who is reading the weighty and wonderful Little Dorrit (and has been for months!), I'm impressed with anyone who lugs Dickens along on their travels.


New York, N.Y.: Cheever, Updike, and Oates for short story collections? Is this the summer of 1979 we're talking about?

Ron Charles: Everything old is new again. Isn't it remarkable to see these experienced masters (Updike and Oates) publishing some of their best stories now?


San Diego, Calif.: Will you/have you reviewed/assigned Chandler Burr's You or Someone Like You? I just read it and I loved it. He's the perfume guy for the NYT and this is his first novel, but I don't think the subject of scent came up at all. Think intelligent Hollywood book club!

Rachel Hartigan Shea: We've assigned it, but have no idea what our reviewer will think of it. Though "intelligent Hollywood book club" sounds promising...


Washington DC: I would recommend "Beowulf at the Beach" by Jack Murnighan. The author is a very funny lit-crit professor who has written recommendations for how and why to read 50 of the greatest pieces of fiction of all time for pleasure. He includes funny takes on what's buzzworthy, what's sexy, etc. and Max Faulkner, Melville and Dickens sound like fun. I am nearly done with it, feel like I have already read some of the classics, and can't wait to actually jump into a couple. Its a good read, short chapters on each book, great for summer fun, and not too light but not too heavy.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Sounds like a good primer for discussions like these.


Silver Spring, Md.: Ok, the coming out story is probably off the table for a while.

Are there any full-adult-life with characters who happen to be gay, and who have the normal sort of couple strife and reward that so many straight novelists write about?

I'd like to read one of those. I'm thinking of a GL version of William Boyd's Any Human Heart or even Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Rough Strife.


Dennis Drabelle: Ron is probably a better person to reply to this one because he reads so much general fiction, a fair amount of which has recently featured gay characters. But I thought I would mention Iris Murdoch, who started including gay characters in her novels before almost anyone else (A Fairly Honorable Defeat and An Accidental Man come to mind) and Angus Wilson, who was himself gay: see Hemlock and After, for example.


Alexandria, VA: Responding to the first poster who wanted a recommendation for YA books, check out "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. It's the first of a trilogy, and was recommended by the Twilight author, Stephenie Meyer, on her website. I loved it and couldn't put it down!

Also, I read "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" during law school, and I can't imagine it's considered YA. I really enjoyed it, but it's epic in length and took many weeks to get through.

Ron Charles: I wouldn't consider "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" YA either, though there's nothing in there that parents would object to. As for length, well, look at the millions of kids who have zipped through thousands and thousands of pages of "Harry Potter."


NYC: You ideally want something massive so, if you get tired at the beach it can double as a pillow. Also, a thick paperback holds a lot of sand, so when you are just polishing off the last chapter, some time in October, little grains come out and you go into a Proustian reverie. I like the classics -- can't speak of this summer yet, but last summer, "Mutiny on the Bounty" by Nordhoff and Hall we perfect. (Also Tolstoy, if it's too hot out, at least you read about cold. Mental air conditioning.)

Ron Charles: I like the way you think.


Anonymous: Thanks for the Little Bee recommendation. I'll be getting it from Politics and Prose or another of the few independent bookstores still here for us. The question about short stories prompts me to ask if you have a recommendation of a collection of truly short short stories that are really good. I'm looking forward to the Joyce Carol Oates one.

Dennis Drabelle: I have an old collection of very short stories at home (for backpacking), but of course that won't do us much good. I think the greatest short short story in English is Ambrose Bierce's One Summer Night. It has a shapeliness and a punch all out of proportion to its page-and-a-half length.


Pittsburgh: Beach read re: the ocean? How about "Barnacle Love," by acclaimed young Toronto author Daniel de Sa, a series of connected short-stories about a young fisherman from Portugal's Azores Islands who washes up half-dead in the Canadian Maritimes in the mid 1950s. I'm part-way through the book and am only sad that it will end, so I'm trying to ration it out in small portions to make it last longer!

Ron Charles: Excellent suggestion.


Kids Reading Suggestions: My daughter loves to read, but gets frustrated about finding good books. She is 10 and just finished 4th grade, but she reads on an 8th grade level. She has a hard time finding a lot of books at her reading level that are not too mature/teenage themed -- i.e. she does not want books with romance at all. Any suggestions to keep her busy this summer?

Dennis Drabelle: Maybe she's ready for Agatha Christie's mysteries. There are dozens of them, they are puzzling but not scary, and the style is adult without being demanding. Start her out with And Then There Were None, and see what happens.


Brookland, D.C.: Seems like there's a lot of depressing news out there revolving around newspapers and publishing. Book sales are down; book coverage is getting slashed; newspapers are disappearing altogether; etc. In such trying times (to maybe overstate the situation?) which current writers consistently put a smile on your face?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Good writers, actually. And I don't think they're going away. People always want stories in whatever form they take.

But the book that most delighted me recently is "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure," which we eviewed last Sunday. I love the idea that 1) Truman thought he could go on a road trip like a normal person, and 2) that Matthew Algeo became so obsessed with the trip that he tracked down just about every detail of it. Ditto, for Peter Carlson's "K Blows Top," about Khrushchev's visit to the United States.


Alexandria, Va.: Since I have limited time for pleasure reading, I try to entertainment with learning, so I love to read historical fiction. What can you recommend that has the historical accuracy and interesting plot line of a James Michener novel but is not an 800 page epic?

Dennis Drabelle: Here's one you may not know of: Rebecca West's The Birds Fall Down, set in England and Russia early in the 20th century. Superb prose, great characters, and lots of information about the Russia of the time.


Wilmington, Del.: Into Thin Air, about the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, is excellent for giving you a chill in the summer. The contrast between the hot weather you're in & the frostbite conditions you're reading about make it terrifying, especially when you know that so many of the people who went up the mountain that day died.

Dennis Drabelle: In the same vein is Alive, Piers Paul Reed's account of the Argentinean rugby club that crashed in the Andes and resorted to cannibalism to survive.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: I'm re-reading YA titles I never got around to in my youth--Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier, etc. But I'm also reading contemporary YA books, like The Hunger Games. Are there any YA titles, new or old, that you'd recommend?

Ron Charles: Laura Whitcomb's "A Certain Slant of Light" is a very fine gothic romance for YA that want something more sophisticated than Twilight.


Leesburg, Va.: Hello Book World,

I'm not sure that you'll have time to get to me, but here it goes. I like to read, but I need to be sucked in to read something. I generally go for non-fiction type books that make me think. Things like "Freakonomics," "Blink," and " The Tipping Point." Does that make any sense?

I'd love to find some new books to read this summer along that vein, but I'm not really in touch with the "Book World" as it were. I know Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out about success or something that I will read, but that's about it. Do you all have any suggestions?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Malcolm Gladwell's latest is Outliers, which is about the circumstances that make success possible for some people. As for other social science-type books, have you read Nudge by Cass Sunstein or Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide?


Media, Penn.: Love the podcast. I'm reading Olive Kitterage and loving it. So good it's hard to think of writing myself!

Ron Charles: Elizabeth Strout is a wonderful novelist (and reviewer). Try her earlier novel, too: Abide with Me. Review here.


Woodley Park, D.C.: I'm currently reading "Killing Che" by Chuck Pfarrer. It's set in 1967 and is a spy thriller about a freelance agent sent to track down Che Guevara and his men. I'm finding it to be very fast paced and a fascinating story. It's also a great blend of history and imaginative storytelling. Everyone needs to read a good spy thriller on the beach!

Dennis Drabelle: Along the same lines, I recently ran across a copy of an old thriller that I liked a lot--and I bought it for a 14-year-old friend of mine: Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil, in which biologists try to create a race of Adolf Hitlers.


Seattle: A great vacation read is Michael Connelly's newest thriller, "The Scarecrow." It ate up two six-hour flights for me.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: There's nothing more exciting than a thriller about the death of newspapers.


Danbury, Conn.: And for the person looking for YA fiction that adults can enjoy as well, Shelfari has a whole group devoted to these books.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Worth checking out.


Louisville, Ky.: I love these two for perfect summer reads: Brian Hall's wonderful The Saskiad is a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in her mother's hippy-ish commune and dealing with the reappearance of her wandering father.

Also Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond (pub. 1956) -- a group of intrepid English tourists traveling by camel in Turkey confronting local culture, ancient and contemporary. It's wonderfully funny with colorful characters, and because it's Macaulay, sharply written and thought-provoking.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: More excellent recommendations...


Wokingham, U.K.: For the Euro-minded there's Geoff Dyer's 'Jeff in Venice; Death in Varanasi' which is partly set at the Venice Biennale, whose 09 session is just starting. It's a really fun satire on Euro or Euro-American cultural life and pretensions.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: A recommendation for those heading to Europe.


Historical fiction for the beach: Hello! I'm just finishing up Pillars of the Earth and had been planning on reading the sequel, World Without End. But I'm getting really tired of Pillars of the Earth (which in my head I'm now calling Book Without End).

Can you recommend a historical fiction novel, something I can take to the beach, that isn't so long and dragged out? I do like the time period and setting of Pillars. Thanks!

Ron Charles: I'm a big fan of historical fiction. For a complete change of pace/tone from Pillars of the Earth, try Sophie Gee's Scandal of the Season about Alexander Pope.

Or David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife, about the daring woman who divorced Brigham Young. Review here.


Herndon, Va.: Should I feel like a lazy bum because I don't want to work very hard when reading books during my beach vacation? I'm glad there are some folks out there who love the classics, but I like to save those for winter nights by the fire.

Dennis Drabelle: Yes, of course, you should feel like a lazy bum because you won't read Proust or Stephen Hawking on your vacation. Just kidding -- of course, the whole point of a vacation is to do what you damned well please. The tradition of reading light while on holiday is venerable and not to be tampered with, and don't let anybody shame you out of your preferences.


Silver Spring, Md.: Along with suspense/mysteries and other novels, I try to read something germane to beaches or water. One year I read Against the Tide by Cornelia Dean. Very interesting. Also read Beautiful Swimmers (crab industry along the Chesapeake) by William Warner. Won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 or so.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Annie Dillard's novel The Maytrees takes place on Cape Cod. Jonathan Yardley highly recommended The Unnatural History of the Sea, by Callum Roberts, about two years ago.


Silver Spring: For the person who likes cognitive economic books, try Tyler Cowen's Discover your Inner Economist and Tim Harford's The Logic of Life.

A little further a field are several fab books edited by John Brockman. Called What Have you Changed your Mind About, What is Your Dangerous Idea, and What are You Optimistic About, these are books of short interesting essays by interesting thinkers that answer the questions posed in the title. Really good intellectual snacking there.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Thanks for adding to the list!


Cary, N.C.: I just finished the wonderful novel, "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. Are there any other great fictional reads out there about that era in the south?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: There's a novel called Freshwater Road, which came out a few years ago, and is about a young woman who heads South to work for civil rights.


New York, N.Y.: What do you recommend for a tween age girl who loved Gossip Girl, The Clique, and similar books? I'd like to get her into more literary books, but nothing too serious.

Ron Charles: My daughter (now 17) loved those books, and I never objected. If she had sensed my disapproval, she would have clung to them ever-more tenaciously! And don't try pushing "good literature" or you'll make your daughter's precious interest in reading fiction feel like homework. The schools are busy enough trying to ruin kids' love of novels. At home, let their interests guide you.


Richmond, Va.: Ooh, Agatha Christie was a great suggestion! I love her stuff!

How about Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Little House on the Prairie? I also liked sci-fi short story anthologies. Especially Isaac Asimov -- his full length novels were intimidating, but the short stories were just the right length and complexity.

I also recently finished Ender's Game -- that was an excellent book.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: I remember loving the Bobsey Twins. I read my mother's copies cover to cover.


Silver Spring, Md.: It's Bloomsday, so I'm recommending Ulysses. Once you get in the swing of it, it is very funny. And there are naughty bits too.

The Beowulf on the Beach guy does a good job with describing it and convincing you to read it.

Ron Charles: Very timely!


Capitol Hill: I tend to read genre novels during the summer. Actually, that's a flat-out lie. I tend to read genre novels throughout the year. sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, etc.

Anyway, I'm interested in hearing your recommendations for lovers of the following:

1) Historical mysteries --- like The Alienist or Dante Club.

2) Alternative history --- like Yiddish Policemen's Union or Plot Against America.

3) Literary fantasy --- like Jonathan Strange.

4) Espionage thrillers --- like The Tears of Autumn or the Smiley novels.

Any help?

Ron Charles: I'm running out of time! As for literary fantasy, look into D.C.'s own Keith Donohue. He's published two novels you might really enjoy: Stolen Child and Angels of Destruction.


Danbury, Conn.: For the person looking for gay-themed fiction, I'd like to recommend Brian Malloy's wonderful YA novel Twelve Long Months.

Ron Charles: Try The Conversion by Joseph Olshan.


Rachel Hartigan Shea: Thanks to everyone for your excellent questions and recommendations. Enjoy your summer reading by the pool, or on a flight to a grand adventure, or even on the Metro downtown.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive