Midsummer Night’s Read

Beach Fare with an Edge

Come summertime, even the most voracious readers start searching for that perfect beach book—light in both tone and weight (for easy vacation portability), exciting enough to hold your attention through the web of blaring radios, with engaging characters that take over your sun-fueled fantasies. But relaxing doesn't necessarily mean shutting down the brain cells or turning your back on the darker side of life, so we've assembled an assortment of books that should provoke and amuse you through Labor Day and beyond. —Joy Press

By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 294 pp., $24.95
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A beach-bound ballerina from Smile i-D
photo: Kevin Davies/i-D The Body Issue, June 1988
A beach-bound ballerina from Smile i-D

Mixing seedy-guy mentality with extreme self-loathing, Chuck Palahniuk's Choke puts a bleakly humorous spin on self-help, addiction recovery, and child-hood trauma, all explored from the perspective of his trademark sociopaths. Death-obsessed former med student Victor Mancini has issues, especially with his once manipulative and now terminally ill mother. Acting out, he cruises sex-addict groups for erotic humiliation, concocts a yeah-right money-making scam that involves choking in restaurants, and makes decisions by asking, "What would Jesus NOT do?" Choke covers some well-trodden ground—Palahniuk's scenes of Victor's job at a colonial America theme park read like George Saunders on an s/m kick—but his appetite for absurdity produces plenty of odd surprises. If Victor has sex with a doctor, will it cure his mother? What is his friend building with the rocks he collects as tokens of sobriety (i.e., not masturbating)? Choke's funny, mantralike prose plows toward the mayhem it portends from the get-go. But for all his muscle-trash nihilism, Palahniuk offers a glimmer of hope, as his skewed characters find new possibilities in the wreckage. —Michael Miller

Fearless Jones
By Walter Mosley
Little, Brown, 312 pp., $24.95
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In Walter Mosley's noir universe, the smudged lines scantly separating the good guys from the bad are further confounded by the existential slippage of racism. Mosley's latest mystery, Fearless Jones, is set in 1950s L.A., where bigotry, both internal and externalized, saturates every layer of social strata. Paris Minton and Fearless Jones—a bookseller and a troubled black tough with a golden heart—are swept by circumstance into an underworld of gangsters, socialites, crooked cops, and Israeli functionaries, all searching for a lucrative Jewish bond previously filched by Nazis. Despite some occasionally hackneyed prose, Mosley scoots swiftly and engagingly through a wild, twisty, Maltese Falcon-like plot. The book's real strength, though, is in Mosley's depiction of the often brutalizing difficulties confronted by the book's leads; their very blackness ups the ante on classic noir's representation of heroic alienation, as well as the inventiveness required to overcome endlessly nasty obstacles. —Rick Levin

By Radhika Jha
Soho Press, 307 pp., $24
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Smell is a book about immigration, pungent odors, and animal sex. It's not often that a reviewer gets to write a sentence like that, but Jha's debut novel is a strange and mostly pleasing concoction of contrasting elements. Leela is a young Indian woman sent to live with relatives in Paris after the death of her father. The family—terrified that Leela will be infected by the Parisians' decadent and impure ways—traps her in their suburban high-rise, until an ugly run-in with her disappointed aunt forces Leela to flee. Left to her own devices, she is drawn to decadent Parisians, honing her feminine wiles through affairs with creepy men who prize her for her otherness. Leela's growing sense of shame reveals itself to her in the form of a "dark feral smell" that trails her wherever she goes; as she works her way toward fame and fortune as "the fusion food queen of Paris," Leela literally is sickened by the racism and the hunger for exoticism that draws men to her. An eerie and unusual coming-of-age tale, Smell suggests that a marriage between Judith Krantz and postcolonial theory might be more entertaining than you'd think. —Joy Press

Smile i-D: The Best From 20 Years Of i-D
Edited by Terry Jones
Taschen, 608 pp., $39.99

As style bibles go, the 20-year-old British magazine i-D is something of an upstart, but its youth isn't the only thing that sets it apart from old broads like Vogue and Bazaar. Brash, irreverent, sexy, and not a little rude, i-D began in 1980 as a deliberately funky alternative to the established fashion glossies, celebrating London's postpunk street style and club culture with a fanzine's enthusiasm and a sociologist's dedication. Though this experiment in DIY publishing and radical graphic design has evolved into one of the world's most successful alterna-mags, it maintains its hipster edge by patrolling the margins of pop culture as well as scuffing up its inner sanctum. Like its local rival The Face, i-D is a voracious consumer and promoter of the new, and its uncanny ability to zero in on the next big thing (including prescient covers on Sade, Madonna, and virtually every top model) is matched only by a knack for discovering and nurturing young photographers (Nick Knight, Wolfgang Tillmans, Juergen Teller) and designtalent. With this in mind, Smile i-D presents the magazine's history as both linear chronology and graphic explosion. Even if the fuck-you anarchy of the original issues tends to dissipate toward the end, enough of its playful, spunky spirit remains to keep us hooked for all 608 pages. —Vince Aletti

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