Lisa Schwarzbaum
June 11, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Summertime is great for reading but hell on books: Pages smear with sunblock, spines warp with water, covers become pitted by smashed bugs. No wonder so many summer readers turn to paperback kings John Grisham and Michael Crichton: You read, you toss, you wash your hands. Cheap and neat. There is something to be said for the big fat hardcover book in summer-it works as a headrest on the beach, for instance, and an eyeshade when you’re napping in a hammock-and it’s currently the only way to march through Randy Shilts’ compulsively readable Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the Military (St. Martin’s, $27.95). But paperbacks are the format of summer. And there are some terrific essence-of-summer options around beyond The Firm (besides, you’ve read it already) and everybody’s memoirs of Provence. There are, for example, classics, the rereading of which may become a ritual as soothing as the smoothing-on of calamine lotion: Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Gone With the Wind (Avon, $6.50); Anton Myrer’s 1978 The Last Convertible (Berkley, $4.50); Pat Conroy’s 1986 The Prince of Tides (Bantam, $5.99) (which is itself awash in beach smells); and Walker Percy’s 1961 The Moviegoer (Ivy, $3.95), which must be read every Fourth of July, followed by a meal of crabs and beer. And then there are a number of recent summer picks. Terry McMillan’s sharp and sassy story of four vibrant black women and the sorry-assed men in and out of their lives, Waiting to Exhale (Pocket, $5.99), is the Girl Book of the season-and, besides, a woman reading it on the beach looks more approachable than a woman reading Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand (Ballantine, $12). And a man reading it will attract babes impressed with his enlightenment. Interesting strangers will flock to the blanket of anyone reading Truman (Touchstone, $15), David McCullough’s inviting, prize-winning biography. As tonic as the man it describes, the book is a bracing change from heavy- breathing fiction about lawyers and vampires. Those who know the historical novels of Patrick O’Brian have probably devoured all 15 of them already and can’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t worship the Irish author. Those who haven’t yet discovered him can begin with Master and Commander (Norton, $9.95)-preferably on the banks of a body of water, as befits a collection of stories set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. (P.S.: The rest of the world is clueing in to O’Brian, so heave-ho.) With the rich, loamy scents of heartland farming stunningly evoked by Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (Fawcett Columbine, $12) is best savored during summer thunderstorms that match the emotional intensity of the King Lear- like drama of three sisters and their father from whom all blessings drain. After which, you’ll need to lighten up. So turn to David Lodge’s Paradise News (Penguin, $10), the latest witty concoction from the author of Small World and Nice Work. Lodge’s humor is distantly related to that of Kingsley Amis by way of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. And if you strike up a conversation with a fellow Lodge lover, you’ve made a friendship that will last at least until September, long after your paperbacks have disintegrated. *

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