Janet Maslin's Hot Summer Books

Janet Maslin summer reading books
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New York Times book critic Janet Maslin takes a look at this summer's new books.

The evidence that summer — and summer reading titles — are here?

This is Exhibit A: "Reclaiming History," a 1,600-page disquisition on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It costs a lot and weighs a lot and winds up agreeing with the Warren Commission's findings, anyway. It's a new book, so it qualifies as summer reading.

But Exhibit B is a side-splitting little book called "Ant Farm." It's made up of very short pieces by a young humorist, Simon Rich. Open it at random and you might find a theory of how the Sultan of Brunei talks to his women, or the sad names a depressed Crayola employee might try to give crayons. Now I ask you, WHICH of these summer books sounds more like a day at the beach?

That doesn't mean summer reading need be lightweight.

There's a serious, edifying experience to be had in reading Frederick Taylor's comprehensive history, "The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989." But it does mean that books that hold your attention and don't waste your time are highly prized at this time of year, whether you're on vacation or just want to be.

So here are a few recommendations.

For the politics junkie: Robert Shrum's "No Excuses" is an only slightly self-serving political memoir, which already makes it a novelty item. Shrum is a high-profile consultant, a veteran of many campaign wars. By his own reckoning he is the "go-to" guy for Democratic candidates even if he hasn't always guided them to victory. And now he has some beans to spill. He offers close-up glimpses of many Presidential contenders and he isn't shy about skewering some. John Edwards and Jimmy Carter won't like this book. But maybe you will.

For anyone who likes to grow things and feel good about it: "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," written by Barbara Kingsolver with her husband and older daughter, is a valentine to rural farming and the pleasures that go with it. This family conducted one of those year-long experiments in minimalism that aren't often fun to read about, but Kingsolver has the gift of writing with good sense, and easygoing humor. At the very least, she'll make you think twice about fruit that's been bred to travel halfway around the world and look much too perfect in the supermarket.

For those who seek spiritual sustenance: Ignore the standard self-help mantras and listen to Judy Collins. It's great to listen to her, anyway. In "The Seven T's," this wonderful singer talks about dealing with grief. At the heart of her book is the suicide of her son Clark, but that event is interwoven with thoughts about creativity, addiction, light and darkness. Faith is a big component here. But Judy Collins doesn't preach. She describes a gentle, inspiring way of living and she shares that in these pages.

Let's say you're a little less high-minded, and a little more snarkily inclined. Tina Brown's "The Diana Chronicles" offers a sanguine, dishy look at the royal mess that led to Princess Diana's meltdown. Yet it has a generous appreciation of what Diana might have become in happier surroundings. What makes this Diana story different from trillions of others is that it's neither worshipful nor nasty: it's fair and interesting, from an author who is quite comfortable with Diana's gilded world. Like the movie "The Queen," Tina Brown's book sounds plausible and knowing about what goes on in heads that wear tiaras.

"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," a biography of the underappreciated wild-man genius Warren Zevon, has a different kind of inside information. This oral biography compiles interviews with anybody who was anybody in the heyday of Los Angeles singer-songwriters. And a surprising number of them actually remember what happened, although Zevon sounds unlikely to have been able to. This is a story of whopping excess, voracious appetites, petty jealousies and unspeakable behavior.

Somehow, it's also very affectionate and winning. If Zevon's excitable-boy behavior is the stuff of legend, so is his brilliance.

Wait a minute: we've come this far and where are the summer novels? The big guns, like Ian McEwen ("On Chesil Beach"), Michael Chabon ("The Yiddish Policemen's Union") and Don DeLillo ("Falling Man") are out in force. But here are two slighter and sunny works of fiction.

Danielle Ganek's "Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him" is an art-world take on the otherwise moribund chick-lit format. Its author has a savvy satirical eye, a terrific title and an insider's knowledge of the New York art gallery world.

And Armistead Maupin, whose "Tales of the City" were such friendly, candid tales of their times, is older, wiser and back with "Michael Tolliver Lives." The title character, now in his fifties, is HIV-positive but has beaten the odds, not only against AIDS but against tired-out-sequel syndrome. So you can enjoy his story almost as much as he does.

Whatever you choose this summer, I hope you pick up a book that you can't put down.