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‘The Last Resort’ Interrogates the Beach While Having fun with It


A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril on the Beach
By Sarah Stodola
Illustrated. 341 pages. Ecco. $27.99.

Publishing a book about beaches within the season of the “beach read” is a daring and meta move, like when Kramer made a coffee-table book about coffee tables on “Seinfeld.”

The traditional wisdom is that readers want something light and unchallenging for his or her summer vacations, something they don’t mind smudging with Coppertone and forsaking on the rental house. Sarah Stodola’s “The Last Resort,” its title echoing Cleveland Amory’s classic about high-society playgrounds, is certainly not that sort of book. Indeed it goals, in well-intentioned, widely researched and somewhat scattershot fashion, to make you profoundly uneasy concerning the very act of visiting the beach.

Why are you even going, anyway? For much of human history, Stodola reminds us, the seaside was considered a deeply uncomfortable and dangerous place. Within the 18th century, dubious seawater “cures” — like flushing the eyes or repeated dunking — were promoted within the West. But beaches were long tolerated fairly than enjoyed, resorts there a lower-altitude parallel to the sort of sanitarium in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” Additionally they feature in literature and flicks, probably greater than mountains do: Mann’s “Death in Venice” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night” flash immediately before the eyes. “Splash.” “Jaws.”

The beach, rebranded by Hollywood and real estate developers as an adult playground — it makes an amazing set, in art and life — nonetheless still carries a vague sense of impending danger. The sharks could be circling. The merciless sun beats down. The large wave could hit. And even before Covid, the tourism trade was vulnerable to outbreaks of disease and violence. “It’s considered one of the few industries,” Stodola writes, that requires its consumers “to indicate up in person to the place of manufacture.” And people consumers are fickle; their idea of “paradise,” denoted by palm trees and cocktail paper umbrellas, all too portable.

Credit…Micilin O’Donaghue

The largest danger, Stodola darkly intones, throwing down loads of statistics, is humans themselves. They overdevelop, recklessly dump plastic and commit great violence to delicate marine ecosystems. The earth is warming; sea levels are rising and established shorelines are being reshaped once they’re not disappearing entirely. And yet many travelers persist in pouting only concerning the immediate forecast. “There’s a thing about any extreme weather event being dismissible as a freak occurrence,” Stodola writes, “after which there’s our current deluge of maximum weather events that makes it harder to disregard that the middle just isn’t holding, to borrow a phrase from Didion, who borrowed it from Yeats.”

There’s a variety of borrowing in “The Last Resort,” and the bibliography may divert you quickly to the more focused histories Stodola consulted, like Mark Braude’s “Making Monte Carlo.” Her glancing forays into race relations delivered to mind Russ Rymer’s more substantive “American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory.”

Stodola, whose previous book was “Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors,” and whose own writing life includes some amount of luxury travel (she founded and edits a web based magazine called Flung), does fruitfully dig up a 1980 essay by a geographer named R.W. Butler. In “The Concept of a Tourist Area Cycle Evolution: Implications for Management of Resources,” Butler identified half a dozen stages, Kübler-Ross-like, in a resort’s life cycle, including Stagnation, Decline and possibly Rejuvenation. (“Tulum today is textbook Consolidation Stage,” Stodola writes of the Mexico municipality, which has turn out to be clogged with sargassum and hipsters.) She does an excellent back-and-forth evaluation of why Bali, Indonesia, has turn out to be a significant destination while nearby Nias has struggled.

Still, you might have to chuckle when somewhat girl amongst a gaggle of village children solicits a photograph from Stodola’s partner, Scott, after which considered one of the kids holds up a middle finger just as he’s taking the shot. This critic didn’t feel quite that level of hostility, however the disorienting variety of places Stodola alights, the variety of vegan dishes and drinks she reports ordering, some at swim-up bars — an old-fashioned on the terrace of the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc in Antibes, France; Absolut and juice on the Naviti Resort in Fiji; “a very decent glass of wine in Cancun” (which she deems in Stagnation Stage) — does make one scratch the top about what this book proposes to be, exactly; it tends to look more last hurrah than last resort. “A nuanced understanding of the beach resort industry where none currently exists,” is what Stodola is attempting, while acknowledging that the carbon offsets she bought for all her long-haul flights “just isn’t enough to rationalize the emissions.”

Mea Acapulco! (Where she enjoyed a melting frozen margarita on the El Mirador.)

Anyway, it’s time to retire the term beach read. We will do it here, now. “Read” (like “invite”) is healthier as a verb, and summer is precisely the season when readers must be “digging deep,” constructing castles within the air in addition to the sand.

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