For many, ”a great summer read” means a waterlogged Judith Krantz paperback that languishes in the bottom of a beach bag until Labor Day. But there is a better way to satisfy a seasonal literary craving. From a sandbag-size tome on civil rights to a slender but substantial ghost story, here’s our guide to a shelfload of summer books with a lot more on their pages than lotion stains.
28 BARBARY LANE Armistead Maupin
Maupin is Dickens with dilated pupils and a style as light and colorful as sherbet. First serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, his appealing confections trace the adventures of some bohemian (and a few conventional) city folk as they search for love amid the social/sexual/spiritual dilemmas of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
PARTING THE WATERS: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS, 1954-63 Taylor Branch
Of the books on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters is in a class by itself. The wide-ranging research on which it is based brings to light for the first time a parade of remarkable people whose lives touched and changed the young minister’s. None, of course, is more remarkable than King himself, who comes to life on the pages of a biography that reads like a novel except that it is true.
FLETCH Gregory McDonald
The first, and still the best, novel in Gregory McDonald’s series about the incorrigibly amoral I.M. Fletcher, an investigative reporter. A roman noir from the Watergate era: slick, lean, and blithely cynical.
LITTLE, BIG John Crowley
This is a thoroughly realistic novel and as relevant to the human condition as a novel can be; it is also a definitive introduction to the kingdom of Faery. Little, Big may well be the best fantasy novel of the 20th century, though Crowley has more in common with Tolstoy than with Tolkien. The plot features not one but two love stories of epic proportions, both guaranteed to churn you to butter.
BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM James M. McPherson
James McPherson is one of those rare historians who can alchemize the dust of ancient battlefields and archives into narrative gold. He invests the War Over Slavery with such immediacy that, by the time the guns are firing on Fort Sumter, you’ll be ready to enlist — probably in the Union Army.
BARBARIANS AT THE GATE: THE FALL OF RJR NABISCO Bryan Burrough & John Helyar
Timing is everything, they say, and so it was with Barbarians at the Gate, the best-selling blow-by-blow account of the gluttonous takeover battle for RJR Nabisco, which was published just as the worm was turning on the 1980s takeover craze. The recent paperback edition is equally well timed; the book was made for the beach. It’s got everything you could ask for in a summer book: high drama, back-stabbing intrigue, snappy dialogue, and a cast of larger-than-life characters. You can think of it as a painless way to fill your ”serious book” quota, or you can think of it the way we do: as the ultimate true-life horror story.
THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET Lawrence Durrell
Set in the exotic Egyptian port city of Alexandria, British novelist Lawrence Durrell’s four interlocking novels — Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea — weave a seductive web of sexual obsession, political intrigue, and double identities. What raises them above mere miniseries fodder is their Rashomon-like construction, revealing secrets within secrets, all wrapped in voluptuous prose.
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD Zora Neale Hurston
The story of Janie Crawford, a high-spirited heroine from a Florida town founded and run by blacks who falls in love with an expansive laborer named Tea Cake. The course of their love runs true if tragically, and it carries along with it enough black folklore and folkways to make the book one of the greatest American novels and a fine work of anthropology as well.
TIME AND AGAIN Jack Finney
Passed around (and around and around) from reader to reader during the 1970s, Jack Finney’s sprawling fantasy remains irresistible and feels even more escapist now than it did 20 years ago. Si Morley abandons his stale job as a magazine illustrator to join a top-secret time-travel project and finds himself transported back to New York in 1882. What do you call a cult novel that’s starting to get long in the tooth? A cult classic, probably.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE Shirley Jackson
The best American haunted-house novel ever written, period. Problem is, the 1963 movie version is so fine and so faithful that the Shirley Jackson original is scarcely read anymore. But it ought to be. Rich in characterization and genuinely scary, the novel is a stylish and sensuous grabber from page one.
THE RAJ QUARTET Paul Scott
History, mystery, morals, manners, and murder in India: Scott, a British Stendhal, reads the minds and enters the nightmares of sahibs, Hindu and Muslim intellectuals, missionaries and maharajas to explain a rape in Mayapore in 1942 and identify the psychopathology of racism.
BY REASON OF INSANITY Shane Stevens
Before Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs), there was Shane Stevens, whose By Reason of Insanity is unsurpassed in the serial-killer business. Stevens plumbs the psyche of Thomas Bishop, who “put his mother, still conscious, in the wood stove and watched her burn.” A sweaty, riveting read.
HOPE OF HEAVEN John O’Hara
Enormously popular and critically acclaimed during his lifetime, and mostly ignored, when not belittled, since his death in 1970, John O’Hara deserves reappraisal. And the best place to begin is with his long short stories and his short novels. At about 200 pages, Hope of Heaven — set in Hollywood during the Golden Age of the studio system and narrated by a failed screenwriter — fits nicely into either category. So all right, maybe he wasn’t a world-class author, but he sure was a first-rate storyteller.
THE BIG LOVE By Florence Aadland as told to Tedd Thomey
“There’s one thing I want to make clear right off,” Aadland writes at the start of this classic of inadvertent black humor, “my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn.” The disparity between Aadland’s actions in smoothing the way for her 15-year-old daughter to bed with the aging, alcoholic movie star and her drooling, peaches-and-cream account of the process is a source of high comedy, and not to be missed.