Alex Beam

Really real summer reading list

Recommendations for summer books you won’t forget on the beach

Gary Hovland for the Boston Globe

There is a particular summer newspaper column that makes my teeth curl: the Here I Am on Summer Vacation With This Big Bag of Books I Plan to Read column.

This preposterous evergreen blooms in the dog days of late summer. Inevitably, the vacationing columnist insists he or she is “really looking forward to diving into [Insert name of reviewer-approved doorstop here].” Robert Caro’s latest 700-pager always makes this list, as do long, earnest novels better suited for a snowbound dacha on the Bering Strait, e.g. Richard Ford’s “Canada,” or almost anything by Richard Russo.

The hypocrisy is triple-strength: Only books touted by the book reviewers’ amen choir make this list; unlike the readers, no self-respecting newspaper hack actually pays for books; and thirdly, the chances of our hero reading these books is asymptotic to zero.


Come clean: You’re going to spend a week knocking your head against Roberto Bolano’s 912-page obscurantist “2666” — (“a masterpiece” quoth the New York Times) — or are you going to go for a quick swim until it’s calm enough to water ski?

Here’s a different summer reading column. I’ve read all of these books. They are all at your local library, and they are among my all-time favorites.

Ever since Globe reader Paul Ricchi sent me a copy of Robertson Davies’s “The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks,” hardly a day has gone by that I have not enjoyed the fictional musings of Canada’s most erudite newspaper editor. (Yes, it’s in my bathroom.) His correspondence with Minerva Hawser, Osceola Thunderbelly, and Chandos Fribble, “PhD to the fourth power” rivals, or trumps, the best of S. J. Perelman. Suffering from a cold, Marchbanks writes: “I passed the next day in bed — confined to my rheum.”

From there it’s a short trip to Mordechai Richler’s “Barney’s Version,” which I plucked from a clearance table at a since-shuttered Barnes & Noble store in Marlborough. Forget what you’ve heard about the movie, this book is stone-dead hilarious. Read to the last page. Thank me later.


I hate to go all Canadian on you, but . . . Timothy Findlay? “The Wars” and “Famous Last Words” — those are two great books.

Genre novels? Absolutely. I push Olen Steinhauer’s “The Tourist” trilogy on everyone I can. I read the second book first, then the third, then the first, which worked well for me. Steinhauer recently let slip that CIA “tourist” Milo Weaver is taking some well-deserved time off. I’m happy for Milo, less happy for me, the avid reader.

Facebook (and Elmore Leonard’s enthusiastic plaudits) recently introduced me to Charles Willeford’s superb 1984 novel, “Miami Blues,” to which goes some credit for jump-starting the Miami noir genre. Willeford enjoyed, or didn’t enjoy, a picaresque life, and I fear/suspect this is his one, great book, at least compared with its successor, “New Hope for the Dead.” A thin, vulpine Alec Baldwin plays the lead in the fun and forgettable 1990 movie.

Of course I recommend (almost) anything by Britain’s Justin Cartwright, who, as the cliché goes, has yet to find his audience in the United States. Specifically: “The Promise of Happiness,” “The Song Before It is Sung,” “In Every Face I Meet,” and “Other People’s Money.” (Read to the last page!) That’s a lot of good novels for one writer.

Non-fiction? I loved John Lukacs’ wonderful “Five Days in London: May, 1940,” a story (Churchill, Hitler, World War II) he seems to have told many different times but most succinctly here. I can’t overpraise astronaut Michael Collins’s erudite, edgy, account of the Apollo moon missions, “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.” Be sure to read the 1974 Farrar Straus and Giroux edition, in most libraries.


A reader once called me a misogynist, because I recommend so few books by female writers. Apologies, and let me swoon over Ann Patchett’s enchanting “State of Wonder,” which, like Norman Rush’s “Mating,” let me dwell in an exotic place, if only for a week or two. Yes, I read “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, and loved it.

I’ll close with a book I wish I had written; what higher praise? “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere,” by Jan Morris. It’s brilliant. She promised it would be her last book. It wasn’t, thank God.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.