Reading List For Summer Of 2004

Janet Maslin summer reading books
"Hypnertomachia Poliphili" is unlike a beach book as anything you could imagine. It has a Latin title and it's more than 500 years old. It's written in an assortment of different languages, some of them "dead" languages. And it's illustrated with 174 woodcuts that are famously kinky and bizarre. Would you take it to the beach for some light summer reading? I don't think so.

But the "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili" is also the inspiration for one of the season's hottest reads: "The Rule of Four," a puzzle-filled thriller about really smart college boys trying to crack the secrets of the text. And "The Rule of Four" aspires to be the next "Da Vinci Code," even if sometimes it tries awfully hard.

The chances are good that you'll read about an American President this season. But which President will it be? Maybe Bill Clinton, if you've got time for the long, long story of his life in "My Life." Maybe Alexander Hamilton? Okay, Hamilton wasn't actually a President, but Ron Chernow's stately biography makes him seem like one. He was a man who turned out reams of pronouncements, a man who really thought about the role of the Coast Guard and the financing of Revolutionary War debt.

And maybe, for the reader in a rush, President George W. Bush makes the best beach book material. President Bush is the subject of a trivia quiz book by Paul Slansky, who has a wicked way of making multiple-choice questions out of real, ill-advised remarks by real people. Let's just say he has a field day with this.

Tough-guy writers often surface at beach-book season. But that doesn't mean they're doing tough-guy things. Elmore Leonard has written an irresistible book for children called "A Coyote's in the House." And it turns out that his version of child-friendly storytelling isn't any less savvy and street-wise than his grown-up stories are.

Robert B. Parker turns to baseball in his big-league novel "Double Play," in which a tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold winds up as the bodyguard to Jackie Robinson in 1947 -- even while the bodyguard is falling hard for dangerous dame. And Lee Child, a thriller writer you should know about if you don't already, takes his hardboiled hero Jack Reacher back to 1990 with "The Enemy." Reacher's the kind of guy whose idea of conversation is "You. Out." This is a page-turner about how he got that way.

Nobody would mistake Hugh Hefner for a tough guy; tough guys don't spend the whole day in pajamas. But if you don't think getting through a wedding ceremony in which the bride is called Playmate for a Lifetime, you don't know what tough means. "Hef's Little Black Book" purports to be filled with Hef's secrets, even if it mostly tells you what his favorite make-out songs are and what's in his refrigerator. For anyone who wonders how the self-promoting King of the Bunny Hutch keeps his edge, he'll tell you: It's not the Pepsi, it's the Viagra.

At least Hef has a track record. You can't say the same for Helen Fielding, the author of "Bridget Jones's Diary," whose latest foray into women's fiction makes her look more and more like a one-hit wonder. In "Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination," she manages to violate one of the most basic rules of chick-lit escapism. A light-hearted romantic comedy shouldn't involve a guy who looks like Osama Bin Laden.

Here's a much better bet in the post-Bridget Jones department: Sarah Dunn's ingratiating, beach-perfect first novel, "The Big Love." And if you'd like summer reading with a real edge, Hari Kunzru is an acerbic social satirist worth mentioning in the same breath with Martin Amis and Zadie Smith. His second novel, "Transmission," shows that even a computer virus can make for a fizzy comedy of manners and a great vacation read.

So, never jump to conclusions about what makes good material for feel-good summer reading. It might be chick-lit about the dating game. And, it might be the indecipherable symbolic dream stories you find in there.