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Reading Frenzy

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The ideal summer read must be quick, gossipy, wicked, romantic, sexy, or all of the above. So save The Brothers Karamazov for next winter, and check out these latest escapes.

Pasadena
By David Ebershoff
(Random House; $24.95)
A vivid novel about an ingrown family of uncertain relations living in a forbidding, weather-torn landscape, resisting those who'd attempt to divine its secrets. But the heights that are wuthering here are the Southern California headlands, the era is the first half of the twentieth century, and real-estate value joins forbidden romance as a driver of the plot. The stunningly swift transformation of this land of orange groves and arroyos into freeways and gated communities lends tragic heft to any story set there (remember Chinatown?). But the path Ebershoff cuts through the tangled historical underbrush is especially scenic and well worth following.

Back Then
By Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan
(William Morrow; $25.95)
Don't expect Scott and Zelda to come jitterbugging out of this married-couple memoir from novelist Anne Bernays and biographer Justin Kaplan. Yes, the couple imbibed their moderate amount of gin and brown spirits, indulged in a modicum of premarital fornication, even, in her case, with what passed for a literary celebrity (Anatole Broyard). But what they really were, were intellectual careerists, of a kind that's increasingly rare outside university hothouses. Even back then, Bernays and Kaplan were serious, practical people, struck only by the most worthy of stars -- a high point is when Jean Stein brings William Faulkner to one of their parties. The real star, however, is a place, not a person. Back Then is flattering to New Yorkers, as are many such memoirs, in its insinuation that life after the city, no matter how distinguished, can only be mere coda.

Unless
By Carol Shields
(Fourth Estate; $24.95)
Unless is a book that was, now famously, written in Shields's race with terminal cancer, and the shadow of the disease ("It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now" is the first line) adds force and momentum. The narrator is a translator and writer of novels. The unhappiness and loss involve a daughter who chooses to live in squalor wearing a sign that says goodness. The book begins in the manner of an investigation of what went wrong in her life, but sometimes feels more like a catalogue of what went right. The quotidian observations tumble out in a rush, obsessive but not depressing. Her unhappiness seems an afterthought, as if to say: Life is a blessing, whatever occurs.

Sin Killer
By Larry McMurtry
(Simon & Schuster; $25)
The picaresque adventures of an eccentric English family far upriver in the wilds of America -- think the Osbournes, but on a Missouri River steamboat in 1832. The antique, lovably bloodthirsty Ozzy is Lord Berrybender, a prodigious shooter of wild animals ("Great sport! Great sport! Never had such fine sport in my life," he exclaims while blasting buffalo). Berrybender, too, has an abundance of progeny to exasperate him, most notably his headstrong daughter Tasmin, who takes up with a taciturn outdoorsman. All that, plus savages -- real ones -- aplenty. Who needs rock and roll?

Malaise
By Nancy Lemann
(Scribner; $24)
In Nancy Lemann's bi-coastal family comedy, her depictions of both New York and Southern California draw heavily on stereotype -- Lemann and her heroine are Southerners, after all. But she's a passionate observer, and it's entertaining to pass the time gazing through her rose-colored glasses. The playfully sarcastic hyperbole is so pervasive it becomes a heightened reality. It's hard to imagine anything too terrible befalling a narrator with such a consistently whimsical turn of mind -- but the plot isn't the point.

You Cannot Be Serious
By John McEnroe with James Kaplan
(Putnam; $25.95)
The pro-tennis tour is like a houseful of cats -- there are affinities and animosities, but selfishness is and must be the rule. And all that time for solitary introspection between the white lines tends to be spent brooding not on man's inhumanity to man but on getting the right amount of topspin on the forehand, or, in McEnroe's notorious case, judge's inhumanity to player. For this reason, tennis players, as a class, tend to be weird without being interesting, but McEnroe is a vivid, often indefensible exception. You are there as that memorable line "You guys are the absolute pits of the world" emerges, never to be forgotten. And a judge mishears it and fines him for using an obscenity. McEnroe catalogues the psychoses of his various opponents while examining -- in awe, a little bit -- his own. In one match, McEnroe is going a little nutty, and his great, Zen-master Swedish opponent, Björn Borg, motions him to the net: "It's okay. Just relax. It's a great match." But part of the continuing excitement of watching McEnroe is that he's at some level unrepentant. And the fascinating question is always present: Would he have been so good if he hadn't been so bad?

The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
By Catherine Millet
(Grove Press; $23)
If you want a book that's guaranteed to be picked up by every member or guest at your summer house (unless your Hamptons harem happens to be guarded by eunuchs), this is the one. Be careful with it if there are children around (sample first line of a chapter: "I really like sucking men's cocks"). The first number (everyone's got one) she supplies is 49, which isn't that impressive; then she mentions that, in fact, these are only the partners to whom she can attach a name, a face, any kind of identifying detail at all. I Am Curious (Catherine) thoroughly maps her body and her predilections, leaving, unfortunately, nothing unexplored. This is sex as not-particularly-enjoyable compulsion (indeed, she didn't realize she hadn't had an orgasm until she'd attended numerous orgies). At the end, you won't be curious -- or particularly horny, either.

The Dream of Scipio
By Iain Pears
(Riverhead; $25.95)
The Dream of Scipio is a rare book indeed -- a page-turner concerning Neoplatonism, anti-Semitism, rare books, and the early Catholic Church. Part of what fascinates here is the same as in, say, the work of Peter Mayle -- the weight of history pressing down on Provence. But Pears is no mere gawker at picturesque locals; he's a virtuoso time traveler, effortlessly whisking his readers from the onset of the Dark Ages to the Second World War and back again, making connections that never feel forced.

Bad Boy Brawly Brown
By Walter Mosley
(Little, Brown; $24.95)
There's an appealing certainty in Walter Mosley's great gumshoe Easy Rawlins, less of the wounded sadness of his lighter-skinned detective cousins like Sam Spade. He's proud of his gift for making his way in a corrupt world: "I can tell you when a man's about to go crazy or when a thug's really a coward or blowhard. I can glance around a room and tell you if you have to worry about gettin' robbed. All that I get from bein' poor and black in this country you so proud 'a savin' from the Koreans and Vietnamese." The plot here concerns the misguided son of one of Easy's friends who's fallen under the sway of an organization known as the Urban Revolutionary Party. As always, there are the character-is-destiny hierarchies of brains and values. But guess what color the real villains are.

Last of the Amazons
By Steven Pressfield
(Doubleday; $24.95)
Reading this latest of Steven Pressfield's battlefield novels of the ancient world, you'll think more of what women you'd cast (Courtney Love is a frightening possibility) in the movie version than of dusting off your college copy of The Iliad to see how it stacks up. Still, the vision of angry, sun-bronzed women wielding battle axes is a scene that will find resonance in many an East End share house.


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