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Beach Book Blegging


At the invitation of an old friend, my daughter and I will be traveling to Thailand the first two weeks of July, and I’ve been commanded to bring only vacation reading. It’s been awhile since I did any of that and I could use suggestions for humorous, smart, non-war-crimes related non-fiction or other good beach reads.

In the past I’ve enjoyed humorous science writing like Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; funny, twisted memoirs like Augusten Buroughs’ Running With Scissors or Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle or social-science-for-laypersons books like More Sex is Better Sex:The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics Heck, I’ll even take a good novel as a last resort. (No mysteries please. Zombie literature ok.)

And it has to be available in paperback. What should I consider? Comment away.

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  • Anonymous

    Try any of these

    Tim Robbins
    Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climate
    Villa Incognito

    Christopher Moore
    Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings
    A Dirty Job
    pretty much any other book he’s written.

  • INotI

    A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a really breezy, entertaining science primer.

  • bartkid

    I see Jared Diamond’s Collapse and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z are now out in paperback.

    As is a second edition of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan and, of course, his first book, Fooled by Randomness.

    And, Gary Marcus’ Kluge should be out in paperback by now.

  • S Physicist

    The Box, by Levinson, is about how container shipping revolutionized the world;
    Coming of Age in the Milky Way, by Ferris, is an entertaining history of science from ancient Egypt until around the 1980s;
    A Time of Gifts, by Leigh Fermor, is an engrossing first-hand account of a walk across Europe;
    Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman, is a great little collection of essays about life as a heavy reader.

  • Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

  • larryb33

    Well, I always recommend Typee by Melville for someone looking for something funny. The South Seas location makes it a perfect beach read!

    • junior

      I love Melville, but he’s hardly a beach read! I could be wrong about this particular book, but I’m guessing I’m not! :)

  • You are traveling – buy a Kindle and buy books on your trip. Why carry dead trees across vast oceans.

    • larryb33

      Really? Electronic gadgets are much more eco friendly?

      • I wasn’t making an eco argument. With a kindle you don’t have to buy a few kilos of books and drag them everywhere you go. If you’re lucky and have enough downtime to exhaust your supply you can buy more and be reading them in the time it took to pop a new cold one and take a sip – all without leaving wherever you were.

        And if you really want to go there, owning a reader is more like taking the metro than driving an SUV. There is still eco costs but it’s centralized and a lot less impact over the long term.

        Figure out how many paper books you’ve bought over your life and how many more you will buy. Then investigate the envo footprint of the paper industry. Take into account packaging and inventory utility costs. Don’t forget the transportation costs of your trip to the bookstore, and for all transportation that got the book to that store.

        And that’s just the larger part of the very long tail that went into a paper book. Living things don’t really care about where the nasty chemicals come from.

        • I hear you. I’m also irrationally old-fashioned when it comes to certain things. I’d worry about having a Kindle on a sandy beach, and the problem with bringing my whole library is that I wouldn’t be forced to actually finish the single book I brought to the beach in my beach bag.

          But, for argument’s sake, would you recommend a Kindle or a Nook?

          • Western Dave

            Because the air-conditioning powering those servers is so environmentally friendly? One of the new green series on Environmental History (you can check the H-Environment listserv to see which one I can’t remember off the top of my head) did an analysis and decided to only publish in print and not do an electronic edition because although the one-time cost of paper is high, the servers were forever draining energy. Now the fact that this was a limited run only of interest to certain people, but a necessity for a uni library type thing may change that calculation one way or the other.

          • Phil Orchard

            The Kindle… the annoyance with it is that it doesn’t give you true pages(so not good for anything you might want to cite) but one of its greatest unadvertised advantages is free text-based browsing and access to e-mail (just text based once again, but hey, free).

            And to echo a comment further down- Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.

          • Halloween Jack

            If you got an iPad, you could play Aurora Feint if you got tired of reading for a bit. I’m just sayin’.

        • larryb33

          I guess I thought you were making an eco argument because the phrase “dead trees” was in your post.
          It does appear that you are minimizing the environmental costs of an electronic device, however.
          I happen to get the majority of my nonfiction from the library. Fiction, I can find used as I prefer older stuff.
          Still, I will cop to rationalizing to some degree because the idea of reading on an electronic reader is so unappealing to me.

  • Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors “A New Literary History of America” sounds like it might be a slog, but it’s actually perfect holiday reading. None of the essays are more than five pages long, which makes it perfect for picking up and putting down; it covers an extremely broad range of topics, but is never “academic”; and all of it is well-written. I don’t think it is out in paperback, but it makes up for this by being close to the only thing you’ll need to bring along.

  • Dan Miller

    World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars. It’s fantastic, and a nice light read while still incorporating IR and history.

  • Jim Shirk

    If you’re not SF averse, anything by Kim Stanley Robinson is a good start. His California Trilogy (esp. The Pacific Edge) is great, and the climate change trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain, etc.) or Years of Rice and Salt will show you some real exploration of issues.

    Another choice is Devil in the White City or Thunderstruck, both about the impacts of changing technology on society.

  • doxastic

    About this time last year I read Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages and LOVED it. I’m a language/communication nerd, so feel free to take my rave with a grain of salt, but I think Okrent’s prose is so lively and choice of examples so fascinating (in one chapter, the neurolinguist struggles to be certified in Klingon) that any curious person would like it. I was most impressed by Okrent’s ability to unpack a very complicated subject (how invented languages build–or fail to build–communities) in an accessible way without oversimplifying difficult concepts.

  • If you haven’t read West With the Night by Beryl Markham, get it today. Autobiography that reads like a thriller, and writing quality that even Hemingway praised.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    If you haven’t read Wolf Hall, I recommend it. For realistic & entertaining escape fiction, any of the FBI novels of Paul Lindsay. Also, Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist.

  • tmv

    Can I second Bill Bryson’s “Short History of Nearly Everything?” Hilarious, wide-ranging, fascinating science book. If you liked Stiff, it’ll definitely appeal to you.

  • Jonathan Cook

    Pope Brock’s “Charlatan: The Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley” is the most delightfully lurid thing I’ve ever read. Brinkley surgically inserted goat testicles into people to “cure” diseases, mostly impotency. He almost became governor of Kansas, inventing modern political advertising from whole cloth. He caught the largest tuna to that date. He started a million-watt X station in Mexico that could be heard in all states and several countries. He popularised the Carter Family. He killed a bunch of people. Very fun read.

  • Warren Terra

    A book I read some years ago, Banvard’s Folly, is a collection of short enjoyable essays about historical figures who fall somewhere on the line between charlatans and well-meaning but deluded. It reminded me of a really good (extended) episode of This American Life

  • Craig

    This is going to sound like a joke, but I actually suggest Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the whole thing on the beach in Florida last year. It’s generally thought of as too dense and complicated to be a beach book, but that’s the point – I would never have read the damn thing if I was determined to understand all of it. Taking it to the beach forced me to read it like any other novel, and it works surprisingly well if you do that. That said, Pynchon’s Inherent Vice actually does make a legitimately good beach book.

  • Gabriel Mares

    So, a few thoughts…
    Reading “Vacation Writing” while on vacation can either lead to a) more thoroughly enjoying your time away, or b) wishing you were taking the vacation described in the book. If you think the former is your likely response, I’d recommend Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods – I’d say best thing he’s written.
    For a novel that is surprisingly relevant to IR theory, Asimov’s Foundation is actually spot on. It’s like he invented a whole bunch of IPE theories about trade dependency before there was such a field as IPE…
    The Best American series is usually good if you have reading commitment problems – I usually pick up a copy of The Best American Essays for whatever year, and usually more than half are really interesting, and deals with fields I’d otherwise never touch. There’s also a The Best American Essays of the Century edition, covering the 20th century.
    And if you want a fictional account of an alien invasion, there’s always Sam Huntington’s Who Are We?

  • rm

    Humorous time-travel SF: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (worth putting the Victorian humor book Three Men in a Boat, the inspiration for the novel, on the ipod or phone or computer as a companion). The previous Willis novel set in the same “world,” Doomsday Book, is also good but the death toll gets in the way of the humor. There’s a new novel in the series coming out.

    • Larkspur

      Meep? Really? Wait. Maybe you mean Blackout? She returns to the same time travel premise, this time sending young historians back into some high risk WWII venues. It’s very very good. But it’s not out in paperback yet.

      However, Mira Grant’s zombie novel is in paperback: Feed. It takes place some 20 or 30 years into the Zombie Apocalypse, which was precipitated by a mutation of the cure for the common cold and a cancer cure (I think I got that right – anyway, it was iatrogenic) and has left the world of the living in major lockdown.

      I hope I did the tags right. Does anyone here list the books they’ve read on LibraryThing?

      • rm

        Yes, I didn’t remember the title, or whether it was forthcoming or already on shelves. But I meant Blackout.

        For me, a beach read must be lightweight, so, usually a paperback.

  • BillCinSD

    If you like somewhat humorous science writing, you might like

    “Death From The Skies! These are the Ways the World Will End” by Dr. Phil Plait — or “Death From The Skies! The Science Behind the End of the World”

    I would also second “Devil in the White City” and “Thunderstruck”. Also, Connie Wills’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog” and Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in A Boat” on which Wills’ book is based are both are hee-haw hi-larious

  • mch

    Why shy away from novels (including mysteries, many of which are among today’s best novels)? I really truly believe the world would be a better place if more political science and other “social science” types read novels, and thereby learned to read them and so happily read more….

  • chance

    Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. It has zombies, steampunk, airship pirates, and is set in Seattle.

    • Eric

      I just finished that, it wasn’t bad at all.

      • Larkspur

        I agree, Boneshaker was a rollicking good read. I am a steampunk fan now.

  • Here goes:

    Giving Good Weight
    by John McPhee
    House by Tracy Kidder
    The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
    The Richness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould
    and, because I recommend it to everyone (and, yes, it is fiction) Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover

  • Bruce Simpson

    If you’ve never read them (or did long ago), you might like the semi-autobiographical series of books written under the pen-name of James Herriot by James Alfred Wight, beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. Wight was primarily a large animal vet in rural Yorkshire, England, before the medical and veterinary sciences had much of anything but ancient remedies to treat his patients, but it is his observations of and interactions with the Yorkshire “worthies” that provide abundant, self-effacing, rollicking humor.

  • bartkid

    If you want to read some powerful reading, I recommend The Unquiet Grave : The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian country by Steve Hendricks.

    I started reading it last night. Wow. This fellow can write, and if you thought you knew anything about AIM or Pine Ridge or Wounded Knee, think again.

  • Chris Jennings

    How about some good Native American literature?

    Walking the Rez Road by Jim Northrup

    Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

    House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

  • You guys are awesome. Thanks so much for this menu of suggestions.

  • RonZ

    I may be late, but if you’re still looking, also consider Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. If you’re open to funny religious themes, I laughed almost the whole way through Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore, and then, to my own surprise, cried at the end, which I obviously knew was coming. And I’m a devout atheist who wasn’t even raised Christian, to boot. (I was raised an orthodox Jew, went to yeshiva and the whole nine yards, so I don’t have a prior emotional attachment to the Jesus saga.)

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