A Brief History of Beach Reading

The first beach readers were the ancient Egyptians, who chipped off palm-sized portions of their enormous, hieroglyphic-incised stelae and carted them to the banks of the Nile. Most of these texts involved harvest inventories, so readers spiced things up by chiseling their own interludes involving Isis and Osiris and someone called “Betty.” Alas, distracted waders who left the stories in their bathing trunks often sank with the weight. Baked clay tablets became the norm in the Indus River valley around 1200 B.C.E., and it is said that the Chinese would bring intricately decorated pottery with them along the Yangtze and “read” the drawings for entertainment. In this hemisphere, the Maya pioneered the use of papyrus as a beach read medium circa 1550 C.E., threading together up to 80 “sheets” at random, for an account of blood sacrifice and bewildering astronomical calculation—a forerunner of Burroughs’s “cut-up” method. This summer we celebrate the 4,000th anniversary of the beach read with the following tales of true crime, sexual awkwardness, and extreme body modification. Ed Park

Sneaky People

By Thomas Berger

Simon and Schuster, 320 pp., $13

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In this reissued 1975 classic, master ventriloquist Berger adopts the lickety-split voices of ’30s screwball comedy. In a small town at summer’s end, used-car dealer and prolific horndog Buddy Sandifer arranges his wife’s murder so he can make an honest woman of his mistress. Although it’s a milieu cynical enough for Cain or Thompson, Berger traces the source of his characters’ deceptions to the quintessentially American intersection of lust and innocence. As sweetly concupiscent as novels get, Sneaky People has equal compassion for the purveyor of porn and the unbearable, why-me awkwardness of the pimpled teenage virgin. Benjamin Strong

Ice Haven 

By Daniel Clowes

Pantheon, 89 pp., $18.95

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Using colors as restrained as his Midwestern characters, graphic novelist Clowes exposes the cruel absurdities rife in his story’s eponymous municipality. A patina of schadenfreude coats the townsfolk’s anguish when a little boy is abducted, and mordantly funny parallels are drawn to Roaring Twenties kid killers Leopold and Loeb. Suspects range from a
critic of “pictographic cartoon symbols” to Ice Haven’s self-described poet laureate, who muses, after hearing an exegesis of the JonBenet Ramsey ransom note on TV, “Is that what it takes to get a careful reading of your work these days—child murder?” Clowes’s spare drawing complements deft storytelling: A three-panel sequence of the poet reading a rival’s work (while sitting on the toilet) wordlessly conveys boredom-revelation-despair through subtle, shifting pen strokes to the face. One character joyfully attains a “truly wonderful state of miserable unhappiness,” a distillation of this complex, contradictory, and entertaining tale. R.C. Baker

Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin

Paul Feig

Three Rivers Press, 304 pp., $13.95

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Fans of Freaks and Geeks will recognize the young Paul Feig as a more neurotic version of beleaguered freshman Sam Weir. But while Sam was a sexless imp, horrified by the idea of porn, young Feig had the unfortunate distinction of being both the first kid in school to discover masturbation and the last to lose his virginity. Worse, Feig grew up in a Christian Scientist household, where his obsessions and compulsions merely reinforced the rules of an omnipresent God. Imagine a devout (and hetero) David Sedaris: twitching, awkward, oversexed, and totally convinced that his foibles are witnessed by a Heavenly Voyeur.

Having lived through his most humiliating moments in the eyes of God, Feig is only slightly self-conscious about revisiting them for an audience. Chapters like ” Please Do Not Read This Chapter,” about Feig’s mother’s psychic discovery that her son was performing auto-fellatio halfway across the country, read like Freaks and Geeks had it aired on Showtime. Izzy Grinspan

Serving as a lovely Greek chorus, the surgically perfected women in The J.A.P. Chronicles speak, think, and whine in unison. They all went to the same prestigious Jewish camp together (“Chickee wee! Chickee woo!” they cheer in remembrance) and collectively obsess about Marc Jacobs, Xanax, and tweezing. Their joint lives reach incestuous heights when Ali Cohen—the one camper who was ugly and had no friends—decides to purge herself of bad summer memories by making a documentary about her cabin (she’s cool now, lives on theThe J.A.P. Chronicles

By Isabel Rose

Doubleday, 341 pp., $23.95

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Lower East Side, is dating a man named McCann). Ali cares more about these women’s whereabouts than artistically appropriate or necessary, but it’s OK—so do we. The book’s tour de force, a 50-page chapter about a lady struggling to arrange a same-day chin wax, is simultaneously offensive and fascinating. Rachel Aviv

Love Creeps

By Amanda Filipacchi

St. Martin’s, 289 pp., $23.95

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In Amanda Filipacchi’s New York, even the homeless are hyper-articulate. Her Manhattanites thrash out their displeasures and obsessions in unfailingly grammatical prose. Filipacchi’s third novel concerns Lynn, an anhedonic gallery owner who “had taken up stalking for health reasons.” In an attempt to recapture a lost sense of desire, Lynn decides to emulate Alan, a chubby accountant who has shadowed her ever since a fateful encounter at their gym’s thigh machine. She targets Roland, a prickly French attorney, and sets in motion a roundelay of shifting allegiances and sexual snarls. While the novel occasionally comes across as more windy than breezy, Filipacchi can conjure oddball situations and merrily acidic dialogue, as when Lynn remarks to her assistant, “What you just said is completely absurd and lame, yet it has great depth.” Alexis Soloski