Honky Tonk (W.W. Norton, $50) is a glorious, big book of photographs, so it deserves its own beach towel. Henry Horenstein here collects 40 years of photographs of great country musicians — many of them while performing near his New England home, but many of them at the old Ryman Auditorium or Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville. There are classic portraits of Mother Maybelle Carter, Speck Rhodes, Harmonica Frank Floyd, and other entertainers, but the book also turns the camera toward the audience for a loving and leering look at the Country Music Fan. Some of them have hair that defies all laws of nature. It's a fascinating look at that time and a celebration of the closeness between artist and audience in country music. Great to see some of those faces of the old, traditional country music and contrast them with today's bland, middle-of-the-road country singers. There are still great, authentic country singers today, but few of them reach the sort of audience that the manufactured ones do.
OK, so maybe you don’t like to read. Maybe you’re at the beach to ogle the dudes and dudettes in their skimpies. Perfectly fine. But it’s still good to have a book as a prop. Here are three short-bite books that not only provide amusement, but might also be conversation starters should above-referenced dudes and dudettes stop by your towel.
Check out Shit Happens, So Get Over It (Summersdale, $7.95), How to Survive Parenthood (Summersdale, $7.95) and The Very Embarrassing Book of Dad Jokes (Portico, $13.95). (This last one works best if you are a single dad.)
Shit Happens is a quote book with life-affirming comments to help people deal with the crap in life. It’s a good book to share — read a page aloud, then ask your towel mates to comment. Discuss!
Parenthood is like an extended halftime speech about raising children. It has a real go-out-there-and-parent-like-a-champion feel to it. It's not like therapy, though. This is supposed to be — and is — fun.
If you want to minimize reading and look at funny pictures, get Rude London (Anova, $14.95). Maybe you're Londoned out by the Olympics, but trust me — NBC hasn't shown you all of London this summer. The picture here is typical of the book. (The subtitle is "Snapshots of a City With Its Pants Down.")
Guilt got you down? Can’t enjoy your time off because you’re not working? Pick up The Decision Book (W.W. Norton, $14.95), a nearly pocket-size guide to running a business or even just an office. It’s also written in the sort of short bites that makes for perfect beach reading, and it includes lots of charts. It's almost like watching a Power Point presentation. This is a good book for the desk, but if you read it on the beach, then maybe it makes at least part of your vacation a business deduction.
But you know, I've discovered nothing says "beach reading" more than a book about sharks. The subtly titled 100 Facts About Sharks(Square Peg, $17.95) is the perfect size to fit between your beach towel and sunblock. As much as anything, it's a chronicle of weirdness. Did you know that the French briefly marketed a lasanga-flavored sunblock, which attracted sharks? (That wasn't the original intent, of course.) Did you know the original Play-Doh was made from tiger-shark brain? (Thirty-eight shark hunters died fetching the stuff of Play-Doh.) And if you've ever wondered what music to play to repel the predator during an attack by a great white, the answer is jazz. Apparently, sharks can't stand Coltrane.
And if you want something that is purely an adrenalin rush of nonfiction storytelling, by all means pick up Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10). This compulsive page-turner tells the story of a young Englishwoman in Tokyo . . . who just . . . disappears . . . . This has such an incredible, manic pace that it becomes a master class in writing true crime. This makes In Cold Blood seem like Beany and the Beckoning Road.
William McKeen’s latest book is Homegrown in Florida, a collection of stories of childhood in the Sunshine State. His other books include Mile Marker Zero, about the artistic life of Key West, and Outlaw Journalist, a biography of Hunter S. Thompson.