One of the pleasures of summer holidays is choosing just the right books to pack along on the annual visit to the beach. I stress that word “books” because only the foolhardy would take an electronic device anywhere near sand, water, intense heat and — as one learns by experience — children predestined to spill their soda where it will do the most damage. Much better to pick one of the following recent titles in paperback or hardcover.
The Big Book of Science Fiction , edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Vintage). How big is big? In this case, we’re talking nearly 1,200 double-columned pages, dozens of representative short classics of science fiction, and newly translated work from around the world. There are surprises, too: Did you know that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote sf? That’s just one indication that the VanderMeers hope to establish a more culturally diverse science fiction canon. Still, there are many old favorites here, some of mine being William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth,” J.G. Ballard’s “The Voices of Time,” Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon” and Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed.”
The Art of Fiction , by James Salter (University of Virginia). This is a slender book, but anyone who reveres the work of James Salter — a sodality that includes John Irving, Richard Ford, George Saunders and John Casey— will want to read it and keep it around. Here one of the great prose stylists of our time reflects on writing, favorite authors (Isaac Babel, Nabokov, Bellow), and the connection between life and fiction. Salter closes with his epigraph to his last novel, “All That Is ”: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”
Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover , edited by Paul Buckley (Penguin). In the 1930s Penguin Classics emphasized simple, typographical covers. Later, the company’s designers began to include bits of art, often a detail from some Old Master painting. But over the past dozen years or so, this pioneering publisher has exploded every notion of what a paperback should look like. This album reproduces scores of recent covers, along with brief commentary from the illustrators and writers associated with the various classics. You can read, study or just ooh and aah at these kaleidoscopic pages.
The Moai Island Puzzle , by Alice Arisugawa (Locked Room International). Since I’m exceptionally fond of locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes, murder on a remote and isolated island is, as they say at the Malice Domestic convention, just my cup of tea. Back in the 1980s, Soji Shimada’s “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” famously reinvigorated the “orthodox” mystery in Japan. In his introduction to “The Moai Island Puzzle,” Shimada praises Arisugawa as the legitimate successor to Ellery Queen, the master of clever, intricate tales that fairly present all the clues and offer a “challenge to the reader.”
The Joys of Travel , by Thomas Swick (Skyhorse). The “seven joys of travel,” according to Thomas Swick, are anticipation, movement, break from routine, novelty, discovery, emotional connection and heightened appreciation of home. In the essay “Anticipation” he discusses how one might prepare for a trip by reading books, watching movies, studying local newspapers, learning a bit of the language. A personal and deeply engaging writer, Swick also tells us about his sojourns in Warsaw and Key West, the pleasure of Toblerone chocolate and his habit of buying CDs in the many foreign countries he visits. More than just good reading for the armchair adventurer, Swick’s book spurs one to get out of that armchair and see the world.
A Priest in 1835 , by Jules Verne (BearManor). Devotees of Jules Verne will welcome this first English translation of his first novel, a mystery-laden romantic thriller produced when he was only 19. In a detailed introduction, the translators Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser summarize the work as “a highly original transformation of two popular 19th-century fictional modes — the Gothic and Poe’s fiction of ‘ratiocination.’ ” They argue that the novel demonstrates Verne’s rather postmodern conviction that “no investigation can be complete, that no amount of rational examination can ever exhaust the mystery that remains behind the surface of things.” This volume, richly illustrated, is part of the North American Jules Verne Society’s Palik series, which makes available in English hitherto neglected works.
The Puzzles of Peter Duluth , by Patrick Quentin (Crippen & Landru). As one learns from Curtis Evans’s excellent introduction, Patrick Quentin was the pen name used by Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler for nine mysteries written between 1932 and 1952, most notably the 1938 classic, “Puzzle for Players.” Several of the later books explore the same dark and psychologically suspenseful territory as Cornell Woolrich (whose six “black” novels — the most famous is “The Bride Wore Black” — have recently been reissued by Centipede Press). After 1952 Wheeler produced seven additional Quentin novels on his own, but then, successfully, switched careers: He soon won a trio of Tonys for scripting the musicals “A Little Night Music,” “Candide” and “Sweeney Todd.” All four stories here feature producer Peter Duluth and his actress wife, Iris. In the almost zany “Puzzle for Poppy” the couple solve the attempted murder of a St. Bernard. This story and “Death and the Rising Star” exhibit a distinctly 1940s breeziness, somewhat reminiscent of the “Thin Man” movies, but the two novellas, “Death Rides the Ski-Tow” and “Murder With Flowers,” are, as Evans notes, more reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers.
The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood , by Robert Hutchinson (Pegasus). Thomas Blood, to quote this biography’s subtitle, was the 17th-century Irish “spy who stole the Crown Jewels and became the king’s secret agent.” A raffish and intrepid adventurer, Blood led one of those colorful lives that people who read too much secretly wish could be theirs. In fact, his exploits partly inspired two of the favorite swashbucklers of one such owlish reader: Rafael Sabatini’s thrilling “Captain Blood” and George MacDonald Fraser’s hilarious “The Pyrates.” If you know either of those masterpieces or enjoy action-packed history, this biography should be in your beach bag.
While all the titles I’ve just mentioned are good books, they also serve as gentle reminders to look beyond the bestseller list for literate fun in the sun. For instance, you might pick up D.C. author Con Lehane’s Murder at the 42nd Street Library (Minotaur), in which librarian Raymond Ambler investigates a brutal shooting in normally hushed and book-lined halls. Then there’s Earle Labor’s The Far Music (De Golyer Library/Southern Methodist University), a captivating memoir — by our leading authority on Jack London — of the years 1945 to 1950, “the era of Bright Expectations.”
Not least, in Geoffrey Brock’s new translation of Six Memos for the Next Millennium , (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the much missed Italo Calvino describes five of his cardinal literary virtues: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Happy summer reading!
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.