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May 23, 2006

Summer reading: Mysteries and histories

Is there such a thing as a “summer book”? Maybe not. It’s just as easy to schlep Mikhail Sholokov’s “And Quiet Flows the Don” to the beach or swimming pool as it is to bring along the newest Carl Hiassen (“Hoot,” Hiaasen’s ecological caper targeted at young readers, was released in paperback this spring, $6.50, Yearling Press). But even if there’s no such thing as a true “summer book,” there’s no question many people read differently during the summer months. Some folks take advantage of their vacations to binge on novels or wade through classic tomes. Others spend warm evenings lounging in the back yard, reading instead of watching summer reruns.If you just can’t decide for yourself what to read, here are a handful of suggestions.For those who grew up reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, there’s nothing more addictively satisfying than a series of novels about a detective. And the most charming detective in the world is Precious Ramotswe, the wise, witty, humane hero of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series (Pantheon). The seventh novel in the series, “Blue Shoes and Happiness” ($21.95), has just been released. I envy you if you haven’t yet discovered this series, set in the beautifully depicted land of Botswana. Throughout the series, McCall crafts moral fables filled with dignity, grace and laugh-out-loud humor. Whatever you do, read this series in sequence!The novels of George Pelecanos are set closer to home — in the dangerous, grungy streets of Washington, D.C. Pelecanos (who is a story editor and writer for the HBO series “The Wire”) is as much an historical novelist as he is a crime writer, and in more than a dozen novels he’s written about the nation’s capital — and all its ironies of race, class and culture — with an exacting eye for detail and ear for language. “The Big Blowdown” (set just before and after World War II), and “Hard Revolution” (which culminates in the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.) are masterpieces. His series featuring Derek Strange is wonderful; even the slighter works (the Nick Stefanos novels) merit attention. Of all the crime novelists on the current scene (a peer group that includes folks like Elmore Leonard, Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane), none has a more serious sense of purpose, or is better at putting the reader directly in the head of every character, good or bad. Pelecanos’ newest paperback release, “Drama City” (Warner, $6.99), is a stand-alone novel that makes a good entry point: It’s the tale of an ex-con who’s trying to put his life back together. Against the backdrop of D.C.’s violent streets, he’s an enforcement officer, trying to protect animals from human brutishness — until his relationship with his Jewish-Latina probation officer, Rachel Lopez, leads him into a riveting dilemma.More than sevenscore years after it ended, the Civil War and its aftermath continue to play a decisive role in American politics and culture. The best single volume history of the conflict is James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” (Oxford, $18.95 in paperback), which ought to be required reading for every American citizen. But for a thought-provoking, contrarian view, check out “A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles For The Meaning of Freedom” by David Williams (New Press, $29.95). Probing beneath the surface of the North-South struggle, Williams examines the political suppression of anti-slavery whites in the South, labor and class struggles on both sides of the line, and the impact of the war on women and Native Americans. More than once, the book will irritate you with what seem to be unwarranted conclusions, but the sheer power of little-known details will never fail to intrigue.For a lighter — but no less provocative — take on history, there’s Sarah Vowell’s “Assassination Vacation,” which was released in paperback (and recently reviewed in LEO) a couple of months ago (Simon & Schuster, $14.95). Vowell’s notion of a vacation itinerary was to spend her time obsessively visiting sites and memorials related to the first three American presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. The result is a riotously funny tour of American history and culture unlike any other travel book you’ve ever read. If you’ve come to love Vowell’s voice through her radio pieces on the public radio show “This American Life,” you might prefer to listen to her read the book on CD; an abridged version (alas) from Audioworks lists for $29.95. Contact the writer at martyrosen@gmail.com