Thirty beach reads
Pack a suitcase and take your pick of these summer getaway books
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My prime recommendation this year for beach, hammock, or air-conditioned treadmill is The Other Woman, Daniel Silva’s 18th novel starring Gabriel Allon, a thoughtful spy: Allon would prefer to spend more time with his family and in his initial calling as a world-class art restorer, but the Israeli intelligence service keeps calling him back for difficult missions. Publication date is July 17: I read the proof as soon as HarperCollins sent it to us and can say that it’s another masterwork of espionage, as Allon outthinks the Kremlin.
Another plus with The Other Woman: It’s expletive-free (unless I’ve missed one). Those with zero tolerance for sexual situations will encounter one on page 10, but it would be a mistake to stop reading then, because the remaining 476 pages are chaste. (Last year I recommended a wonderfully written novel, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, and noted that it contained occasional bad language—but one WORLD reader took me to task for forgetting to mention scenes of adultery on pages 46, 236, 374, and 429.)
Other WORLD readers tolerate novels with some sex and bad language, but our reviewers should always give warnings. I apologized to one Pachinko critic for not doing so, and she replied, “My mother-in-law and I often read books recommended in WORLD and then recommend them to each other if we like them. I would be absolutely red-faced to recommend this to her.”
We’ll try not to put any of our readers in that situation again, but I also sympathize with authors who say completely clean novels are not realistic in a dirty world. I’m glad the WORLD member “did go back to finish Pachinko precisely because I wanted to find out if any of the characters found the redemption they were searching for. … Finding a good novel with redemptive themes can be difficult these days, and yet, I can’t in good conscience recommend this one to friends or family despite the great story.” Fair enough.
So, in our search for light but not lightweight summer fiction, let’s note six historical novels that could be recommended to mothers-in-law. Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time (Pegasus Books, 2018) has its protagonist, John, dying in 1348 from the bubonic plague. Then he mysteriously receives a great gift: He can live in health for six more days, with each day jumping by 99 years.
The movement from 1447 to 1546 to 1645 and so on immerses John in swirling social currents and technological advance, but he is frustrated in his attempt (within a medieval Catholic worldview) to earn salvation by doing a truly good deed. He eventually realizes that in marrying and fathering he “did one small but truly great thing.”
Gregory Benford’s The Berlin Project (Simon & Schuster, 2017) also plays with time: The premise is that the United States developed a nuclear bomb a year earlier than history records, and used it on Nazi Germany. The action slows at times with brief, understandable descriptions of the physics of bombs, but the interplay of humans makes it a page-turner.
In Munich (Deckle Edge, 2018), Robert Harris pulls off the amazing feat of creating suspense concerning a well-known turning point in history. The two key fictional characters, college friends who are now British and German diplomats, interact with Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, and other leaders during the four days that led to the infamous agreement that would purportedly prevent World War II.
Harris makes historical and imagined characters come alive, shows how popular Chamberlain’s pacifism was, and gives us his logic in waving a piece of paper that promised “peace in our time.” Note: F-bombs explode on two pages in derogatory references to Hitler, but that seems like acceptable collateral damage regarding the greatest European villain of modern times (tied with Josef Stalin).
Readers who liked Charles Frazier’s best-selling Cold Mountain will also enjoy Varina (Ecco, 2018), which focuses on the 1865 escape from Richmond of Jefferson Davis’ wife. Happily, the sexual ethic is 19th century, which means characters are not sex-obsessed, but in other ways Frazier’s Varina Davis seems very 21st century in her emphasis on proto-feminist independence.
Mothers-in-law who are open to the beach reads of a previous generation may fall back on the two great World War II novels Herman Wouk published in 1971 and 1978, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance (Little, Brown). Wouk also adapted them for a 1988 television series. Two superstar writers, Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, died last month, but Wouk had his 103rd birthday on May 15: He remains unappreciated by some critics because he has loved America and written snappy but not snarky fiction.
To find brilliant books without sexual situations sometimes requires a look back to the 19th-century Victorians, for whom death was a public matter but sex a private one. (The reverse became common in the 20th century.) Some novels by Charles Dickens go on and on, but Hard Times (1854) is relatively snappy, beginning with the insistence of one main character, Mr. Bounderby, that novels are inferior: “What I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
One girl in a facts-only school cannot define a horse, so a boy does: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.” He goes on that way, and the teacher, Mr. Gradgrind, says, “Now girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.” But does she? And does Gradgrind? God gave us yearnings beyond facts, and novelists who teach us empathy by introducing us to characters unlike ourselves, and places unlike our homes, perform a great service.
NOW LET’S SCRUTINIZE THE COIN’S OTHER SIDE by noting 11 new works of fiction that have been well-reviewed in secular publications but do not pass the mother-in-law test. Four come close.
Robert Olmstead’s Savage Country (Algonquin, 2017) is a dramatic tale of buffalo-hunting with a larger-than-life hero and heroine, but ample throat-slitting near the end would make mothers-in-law question their son’s marrying judgment. Harry Dolan’s The Man in the Crooked Hat (Putnam, 2017) has five F-bombs—yes, this year I counted—and a sexual scene, but I kept going through 354 pages because it’s a well-done detective story involving a search for the man who murdered the main character’s wife.
Rebecca Brown’s emotionally gripping Flying at Night (Berkley, 2018) has as its main characters an authoritarian grandpa, his angry daughter, and her high-functioning autistic son. When the grandfather suffers a massive heart attack, his family is distraught when he doesn’t die as doctors said he would. When he recovers in a diminished state, love grows in the rockiest of soils. (Too bad the rockiest four-letter word takes a dozen flights.)
An Officer and a Spy (Deckle Edge, 2014), by Munich author Robert Harris, also comes close. The subject is France’s infamous 1890s Dreyfus case: Fueled by anti-Semitism, French military judges sentenced Alfred Dreyfus to life imprisonment and shipped him to the aptly named Devil’s Island off the South American coast. Dreyfus, though, was innocent, and Harris gives us a thoughtful detective story—who was the traitor?—based on the actual events and documents. (My mother-in-law caution comes because the protagonist is an adulterer and other characters occasionally use crude speech, including an F-bomb.)
If cleanliness is next to godliness, seven other books praised by critics don’t come close to being recommendation-worthy. For example, The One by John Marrs (Del Rey, 2018) has an intriguing premise: A company develops a simple DNA test that shows not only ancestry but an individual’s one and only “soul mate.” It turns out that making marriage supposedly scientific does not work, but expletives and explicit sexual situations clutter that true conclusion.
Library Journal recommended Peter Swanson’s suspenseful All the Beautiful Lies (William Morrow, 2018), calling it “chock-full of twists, turns, lust, greed, and dishonesty,” but I wish it were chock-empty of acting-out lust. Stanley Bing’s Immortal Life (Simon & Schuster, 2017) shows what happens when those who don’t believe in God seek a lower form of eternal life: It’s funny in parts but chock-full of foul language.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It (Random House, 2018) contains 10 well-written short stories that reflect problems of contemporary American life. Sittenfeld’s use of unreliable narrators, as in “Volunteers Are Shining Stars,” keeps us guessing, but adultery-filled pages and positive LGBT depictions are part of a worldview that emphasizes chance rather than providence.
Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M (William Morrow, 2018) is a clever postapocalyptic fantasy that begins when most people throughout the world lose their shadows—and several days later, their memories. The physical metaphor will work well in the film I suspect this novel will become, but I hope the director knows that an F-bomb-a-minute pace will discourage a big part of the potential audience.
Overwhelmed by obscenities, I stopped reading famous playwright David Mamet’s new novel, Chicago (Custom House, 2018), on page 49. Whelmed by huge amounts of violence and bunches of expletives, I can’t recommend Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X (Minotaur, 2016), first of five books in a series, even though it has the interesting premise of a secret agent/killing machine who has somehow gained compassion and devotes his life to helping others threatened by very bad guys.
I’LL CONFESS HERE MY FAVORITE 10 p.m. to midnight reading: spy or detective novels with protagonists who must combat Nazis, Soviets, or Islamists. Along with Daniel Silva, authors I like include Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, David Downing, Alex Dryden, Mark Henshaw, Alan Furst, Jason Matthews, William Ryan, Martin Cruz Smith, and Tom Rob Smith. Their heroes are in an occupation where violence is inevitable, sex is sometimes weaponized, and some words resemble grunts. So, most are decidedly not for mothers-in-law.
One of the best writers in this genre, Philip Kerr, died on March 23, leaving behind hard-boiled detective novels filled with suspense, sadness, and largely German settings. Kerr’s greatest character, Bernie Gunther, is a compassionate German forced to work with Nazis: He finds humane outs against all odds, but is tagged after the war ends as one of them. The 13th in the series, Greeks Bearing Gifts (Putnam, 2018), takes the on-the-run detective back to Munich and then on to Athens, where he brings another Nazi to justice—but not before lust and bad language play their usual malevolent roles. Kerr’s novels are not for readers who want clean thoughts and words from those with dirty hands.
Octogenarian John Le Carré is still writing spy novels, but should have retired years ago. His A Legacy of Spies (Viking, 2018) brings back Peter Guillam, the disciple of Le Carré’s greatest character, George Smiley. Guillam is under fire as today’s spymasters review a Cold War scheme that went belly-up and left British agents sprawled that way with bullets in them. Smiley makes a cameo appearance at the end, and wonders why he battled as he did: “For world peace, whatever that is? ... Or was it all in the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again.”
That’s easy to say decades after the Cold War’s height, but I’m thankful for brave people who stood up to Mao Zedong’s Chinese totalitarianism. This is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Chen Jo-hsi’s The Execution of Mayor Lin, and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Indiana University Press, 1978). One of the best short stories, “Chairman Mao Is a Rotten Egg,” shows how parents panic when Ching-ching, their 4-year-old, hears the Chinese equivalent of that sentence and sing-songs it. (They could be arrested for disloyalty, and Ching-ching’s permanent record could be marred.)
I’ll conclude with more praise for Pachinko (Grand Central, 2017), but this time link that with caveats about scenes of adultery. I’ve sadly found that most novels recommended by secular reviewers are disappointing both in worldview and in specific detail, but Pachinko surprisingly became a National Book Award finalist last year.
I recognize our readers’ critiques but still like both the book and its Christian author, Min Jin Lee: Please enjoy the Q&A with her in this issue.
Maritime and legal sharks
Simon & Schuster on July 10 is publishing Indianapolis by former WORLD Feature Editor Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. I have a hard time objectively reviewing books by friends like Lynn, so here I’ll merely say what the book is about, and tell you that in July we plan to publish a short excerpt of Indianapolis—so you can judge for yourself.
Facts: On July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis dropped off on a Pacific island the components of an atomic bomb that would soon fall on Hiroshima. Two Japanese torpedoes then struck the ship: Three hundred men died right away, 900 went into the water, and during the following five nights and four days nearly 600 succumbed to sharks, dehydration, injuries, and insanity.
In the big summer movie of 1975, Jaws, crazed shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) dramatically tells a version of the story. But 316 men, including Indianapolis Capt. Charles McVay III, survived. The Navy court-martialed McVay, and other survivors began a 50-year fight for justice—so Indianapolis combines survival story and courtroom drama.
Fun with an edge
The Babylon Bee’s How to Be a Perfect Christian (Multnomah, 2018) delightfully satirizes some current evangelical trends. Authors Adam Ford and Kyle Mann compare an unacceptable statement of faith for a hipster church (“We believe the Bible to be the Word of God, perfect in all its parts, truth without any mixture of error”) with an acceptable one: “In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum.” They offer marching orders: “If our culture decides your beliefs are offensive and archaic tomorrow, immediately drop them and declare that anyone who still holds to the belief system you held to just 24 hours ago is an intolerable bigot.”
The Bee book also presents essential truths of the mainstream megachurch gospel: “You are amazing. … God really needs you on His team. … God is love and has absolutely no other distinguishing attributes. … Jesus died for your temporary comfort and security. … Did we mention you’re amazing? … The God of the Bible would never do anything you would personally disagree with.” It also satirizes Washington evangelicals who say, “Christianity should only be valued insofar as it helps us win political battles and shape the social landscape.”
Joseph Epstein’s latest book of columns and essays, The Ideal of Culture (Axios, 2018), floats like an intellectual butterfly and sometimes stings like a Babylon bee. At age 75 he thought he had been treated fairly to live so long: “The rest of my life, as people used to say before the worry about cholesterol set in, is gravy.” Now in his 80s, Epstein worries that he is repeating stories and jokes: “Have I arrived at my anecdotage, the stage of mental decomposition that precedes full dotage?”
Not yet, because Epstein still has an eye for the wit of others, such as the 19th-century clergyman Sydney Smith, who said the conversation of one garrulous British lord contained “some gorgeous flashes of silence.” Smith also noted that journalists are like razors, always “either in hot water or scrapes,” and said two women screaming at each other from their apartments “will never agree. They are arguing from different premises.”
At the end of June we’re halfway through the baseball season, and half of major league’s general managers are looking to trade veterans on losing teams for young talent. Armchair GMs can learn a lot by reading In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball (University of Nebraska Press, 2015 with a 2018 epilogue). Authors Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt show how smart baseball execs gained an edge by pioneering with farm systems in the 1930s, integration in the late 1940s and 1950s, better Latin American scouting in the 1980s, and baseball analytics in the 2000s.
David Rapp’s Tinker to Evers to Chance (University of Chicago Press, 2018) shows how the famous double-play trio helped baseball to dispel its reputation for “hoodlumism” and become more than a way to pass time. Ninety Percent Mental (DaCapo, 2018) by Bob Tewksbury, a former pitcher who is now a “mental skills” baseball coach, applies the prosperity gospel to baseball: Visualize striking out an opponent, then name it and claim it. Those who have moved from the national pastime to the international one may enjoy Laurent Dubois’ The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer (Basic, 2018).
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