Every summer, we get the odd notion that we should tell CL readers about some great beach books. We're just quirky that way. Anyhow, we're talking about books that are engaging, fun, and also smart — that is, books that aren't so fluffy you forget what you've read before you get back to the rental house. Here are five books — most of them recently making their paperback debuts — you'll have fun reading while still respecting your brain. Have fun, and don't forget the sunscreen.
Life by Keith Richards with James Fox (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $16.99). It's a surprise to many that Keith Richards is still alive. What's even more surprising is how perceptive, intelligent and, well, decent the Rolling Stones guitarist comes across in his bestselling autobiography. Not decent as in "He's an angel," that's for sure, but decent as in it's obvious that Richards is serious about music, basically likes people, has sincere regrets, and is forgiving of others. Certainly, he tells some of the classic wild Stones tales — with new information and insights, too — but he refrains from mean-spirited gossip while telling the band's remarkable story, from their hardscrabble start to a gig headlining the Super Bowl. Highly readable, hugely entertaining, and, yes, pretty damn smart.
Hardly Knew Her by Laura Lippman (HarperCollins/Avon A, $13.99). Major-award-grabbing writer Laura Lippman, best known for her Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan crime novels, is apparently just as good with short stories. Her first short story collection, recently re-published, is a set of gems in which Lippman stretches the scope of her stories and lets her choice of styles (and plot twists) run wild. "The Crack Cocaine Diet" starts the book with a pure shot of dark, hilarious havoc in when two teen girls try to make their first-time drug buy so they can lose weight and make their former boyfriends jealous. Lippman lets Tess Monaghan put in an appearance, too, but the book's highlights may be a story and a novella about Heloise, a high-priced call girl and devoted soccer mom.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Anchor Books, 340 pages, $14.95). Critics raved about Jennifer Egan's look at rock 'n' roll, youthful rebellion, and what happens to those with age. The novel's main characters are Bennie Salazar, former punk rock star turned corrupted music producer, and his klepto assistant, Sasha. The time is sorta-present-day New York, with switches to Bennie's troubled glory days in the San Francisco area, and then into the future with a settled-down Sasha. Egan also switches formats for the story, including a section in the form of a powerpoint presentation. There's plenty of humor, graceful writing, and a writer's inventive mind to enjoy. In a time when it's easy to be discouraged about the state of American fiction, Egan is a bright, quirky light.
Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (Broadway Books, $15). The amazing, incredibly intricate and true story of British World War II double agent Eddie Chapman is one that deserves to be widely known. Ben Macintyre's book — the "oldie" on this list (it was first published in 2007) — could still make that happen, with its great action scenes filled with proto-007 spy gizmos, gorgeous women, secret codes and its portrait of a maddeningly unknowable protagonist. Chapman, a Brit-turned-German-spy-turned-British-double-agent, was a character for the ages: enigmatic, amoral, talented, devious and, of course, romantic and deadly. One of the only double agents to fool the Germans all the way until the war's end, he fed a boatload of "vital disinformation" to the Nazis. The book at times reads like a suspenseful espionage thriller, at others like an improbable comedy; either way, the story is a classic and Macintyre's writing sings.
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (Picador, 296 pages, $15). A satire of America in our discombobulated age, The Ask revolves around one Milo Burke. Milo is a not-very-good development officer for a mediocre university, thus the title. (An "Ask" is what development officers call a potential donor, as well as the pitch the officers make to donors). Milo is fired, but soon is offered another chance at his old job when a potential donor specifically asks for him. The donor turns out to be an old acquaintance, Purdy, now a tech multi-millionaire, who puts Milo in charge of Purdy's illegitimate son, a hot-tempered Iraq war amputee who spends his time stalking a former classmate/war-hero. Meanwhile, Milo's wife is openly adulterous (but still a good friend, of course), and his own son is obsessed by everything there is to know about penises. And that's just the start of this literary riot.