When choosing reading material for relaxing at the beach or lounging by the pool, odds are that you’re looking for a thrilling page-turner or something light and funny that you won’t have to think too hard about – War and Peace, not so much. That said, don’t we all have the goal of being more “well-read?” Unfortunately, chick lit and pulp thrillers can’t really help us meet this objective. To fulfill both your low-brow and high-brow needs this summer, we’ve put together this list of entertaining yet literary books that wouldn’t be out of place at the beach or on a literature class syllabus. Now you have no excuse not to crack open a book!
First published in 1856, this tale of adultery in provincial France became infamous after its author was tried and acquitted of the crime of “obscenity” for writing it. While Madame Bovary is today considered one of the greatest works of fiction ever written, the main character of Gustav Flaubert’s masterpiece could also be considered the original “Desperate Housewife.” Rich, bored and self-absorbed, Emma Bovary begins cheating on her husband after being seduced by the glamorous and wealthy Rodolphe. Her life then begins to spiral more and more out of control. This book will have you turning the pages til the very end to see what will happen next with Emma and her series of bad decisions. As a bonus, you’ll also be able to impress your friends by telling them a thing or two about literary realism. Très chic!
British writer Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 classic Rebecca has all the trappings of a good thriller: a spooky mansion in the English countryside, dark secrets involving a dead bride, and a sadistic villain – appearing in the form of an uber-creepy housekeeper named Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. de Winter is a young American who, while traveling on the French Riviera, is swept off her feet by a wealthy British widower, Maxim de Winter. The two quickly marry and move to Manderley, his isolated West Country estate. However, the second Mrs. De Winter soon begins to realize that while the first Mrs. de Winter, a.k.a. Rebecca, is long-dead, her memory is very much alive in Manderley. Besides being an enthralling, eerie mystery, Rebecca is also on many lists of the greatest books of the 20th century.
Looking for some lighthearted yet witty entertainment? If you’re also a fan of British humor, you might want to check out The Code of the Woosters, the most critically acclaimed book in P.G. Wodehouse’s hilarious “Jeeves” series. These books primarily revolve around the funny antics and misadventures of the foppish English gentleman Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. Nothing of very much importance actually takes place in The Code of the Woosters, first published in 1938 – the book begins with a bad hangover, and its main conflict involves the recovery of an antique cow creamer (with a sub-plot involving the theft of a policeman’s helmet). But if you’re a fan of Seinfeld, Oscar Wilde or Mr. Bean, you’ll probably get a kick out of this classy comedy. The best part is that there are over a dozen more books in the series to read if you like this one.
Erica Jong’s hilarious, sexually-charged first novel is today considered a feminist classic, although it was highly controversial at the time of its publication almost 40 years ago, being one of the first mainstream novels written by a female author to discuss women’s sexual desires in frank terms. Fear of Flying is about the journey of Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a neurotic yet likable writer who, at 29 and on her second marriage, fantasizes about having a completely uninhibited extra-marital affair – and ends up doing just that. This book wouldn’t really fall into the “erotica” category like the naughty and insanely popular 2012 bestseller, 50 Shades of Gray, but when Fear of Flying was published in 1973, it struck a chord with many married women who felt unfulfilled in their marriages. Though dated in some ways and not necessarily representative of the modern feminist view, Fear of Flying is both fun and funny, and it is still racy enough to make most readers blush. If you liked The Diary of Bridget Jones or any of Chelsea Handler’s books, this bawdy book is sure to delight.
Pretty much any book you pick up by David Sedaris, a contemporary humorist, essayist and National Public Radio contributor, is going to be side-splittingly funny. His accessible yet erudite style has both put him on the New York Times Bestseller List and earned him the distinction of “Humorist of the Year” by Time magazine. However, the “beachy-est” of Sedaris’s works is probably his latest short story collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. Don’t let the large print and illustrations fool you – this book is for adults! This collection of hysterical, fable-like short stories, some of which Sedaris has read on NPR’s This American Life program, is about animals with human characteristics and predicaments – e.g., a cat and a mouse who meet in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a chipmunk and a squirrel who begin dating but eventually “run out of things to talk about.” If you have a taste for dark humor and the absurd, pick up this highly entertaining and subtly thought-provoking collection.
Love historical fiction, gothic romances or mysteries? Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s award-winning 2001 novel is a gothic, self-aware mystery that will keep you up into the wee morning hours. The setting is 1945 Barcelona, the protagonist, a boy named Daniel who has been initiated into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret library. In this library he finds a book called The Shadow of the Wind, and from here unfolds an epic tale of magic, madness, romance and murder. This seductive novel captures your imagination with its descriptive language and rich sense of setting. Whether you’re lying out on the beach in Jersey or by the pool in your apartment complex, reading this book will utterly transport you away to a distant, dreamy place – which is the ultimate goal of summer vacation, is it not?