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Summertime and the reading is easy — and plentiful

For some people, summer vacation is the one time of year they can settle into a good book. For others, it's the time to really indulge a year-round habit. Wherever you fit on the summer book spectrum, here's a beach tote full of suggestions.

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If you're the type who swears every summer that this will be the year you read War and Peace — and then swears it again the next year — have I got a book for you.

Jack Murnighan's Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits (Three Rivers Press, $15) arrives just in time for vacation reading. It's the perfect guide if you want to return from some sunny spot and brag about the weighty tome you read — but don't want to sprain your brain actually doing it.

Murnighan takes an irreverent approach, like that fun English prof who's the only teacher you remember 10 years after college. He's not offering CliffsNotes, he points out. He's hoping to get people pumped about reading these books, most of which he loves.

Starting with the Bible and the works of Homer, he cruises through the literary high spots of the centuries right up to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Toni Morrison's Beloved.

For each of the 50 works, Murnighan begins with an enthusiastic, easy-to-understand description that focuses on the work's attractions for modern readers: gory battle scenes in The Iliad, "more hanky panking than you'd think" in the Old Testament, wild humor in Moby-Dick, the psychology of race relations in Native Son.

Then he offers, for each book, the Buzz, which he defines as "your cocktail party Ph.D." — what most people know about the book whether they've read it or not. (A Farewell to Arms is a great war novel, Jane Eyre's title character is a fine role model for girls.)

Next come What People Don't Know (But Should), with tidbits like exactly why Faust sold his soul to the devil; Best Line, most of which are actually paragraphs; What's Sexy, often pointing out steamy subtleties you might not know about, but also the obvious, as for Lolita: "Duh"; and Quirky Fact, from the gossip-loving people of Florence demanding to know on which real-life sinners Dante based his sufferers in Inferno, to the spectacular, hilarious "Disgusting English Candy Drill" in Gravity's Rainbow.

Finally Murnighan advises What to Skip, anything from "don't skip a moment of One Hundred Years of Solitude" to selected pages or chapters of some works to whole books of the Bible and about the first third of Madame Bovary. (Personally, I'd skip the whole thing.)

Beowulf on the Beach itself is a blast to read even if you're not planning to pick up one of the classics this summer — or if you've already read them.

Book to film

It wouldn't be summer without a few blockbuster movies based on beloved books. For my money, the books are almost always better, and even when the movie comes close, reading (or rereading) the book will deepen your enjoyment.

The big boy of summer books to film is the Boy Wizard, of course: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, opening July 15. The sixth of J.K. Rowling's Potter novels is one of my favorites, but it's among the most emotionally wrenching. It also delves deeply into the history of Harry's family and other major characters. The stellar ensemble cast returns, as does director David Yates, who did a fine job with HP and the Order of the Phoenix.

A book of grownup fantasy is the source for The Time Traveler's Wife, opening Aug. 12. Audrey Niffenegger's luminous 2003 debut novel detailed the dizzying, moving romance between a bright young woman and a man who vaults uncontrollably back and forth in time — he shows up as an adult when she's a child, as a younger man when she's a grown woman, and so on. Niffenegger made what could have been a gimmick into a deeply touching book. I'm a little worried about the casting — beefcake Eric Bana (Star Trek) is nothing like my idea of Henry de Tamble, the book's helpless, determined hero — but if the filmmakers pull this one off, bring your Kleenex.

Two books inspired Julie & Julia, opening Aug. 7. It gets its title from a book inspired by yet another book: A young woman named Julie Powell, bored with her life, set out to cook every single dish in TV chef Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell wrote a blog, then a bestselling book about her experience. Screenwriter-director Nora Ephron interweaves Powell's book with My Life in France, Child's autobiography, written with Alex Prud'homme. Meryl Streep plays Child, Amy Adams plays Powell, and I expect delicious results.

Just in time for the 40th anniversary of the generation-defining pop festival, Taking Woodstock opens Aug. 12. It's based on a 2007 memoir of the same name by Elliot Tiber, who ran a down-at-the-heels hotel in the Catskills in the 1960s and was pivotal in bringing the massive music fest to the small New York town. Director Ang Lee has proved he's an ace at translating fiction to film with the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain and many other films; I'm looking forward to seeing how he handles history.

My Sister's Keeper, based on Jodi Picoult's bestselling 2004 novel of the same name, opens June 26. The story of a 13-year-old girl who was conceived to be a bone marrow donor for an older sister with leukemia, it features two of the best teen actors in the business, Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and Sofia Vassilieva (Medium) as the sisters. This one calls for a whole box of tissues.

It's not based on a book, but Away We Go, opening June 25, boasts a screenplay by a couple of heavy hitters of contemporary fiction: Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is the What) and his wife, Vendela Vida (And Now You Can Go). Given Eggers' and Vida's narrative gifts and direction by Sam Mendes, this comedy about a young couple — played by charmers John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph — expecting a baby and searching for the right place to live has promise.

A couple of based-on-books indie films may or may not make it to the Tampa Bay area this summer, but both sound worth staying on the lookout.

Chéri, based on the great French writer Colette's novel of that name, stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a retired, middle-aged courtesan who has an affair with a spoiled young man, the Chéri of the title. Set in Paris in the 1920s and also featuring Kathy Bates, it's directed by Stephen Frears, who showed with The Queen he can make compelling movies about powerful women.

Food Inc. is a documentary that Variety called "a civilized horror movie for the socially conscious." Its director, Robert Kenner, draws substantially on the influential books of investigative journalists Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), who both appear in the film. Tip: Don't buy any popcorn on the way in.

Other lives

Just as they step outside their own daily lives on vacation, many readers enjoy biographies that open a window into someone else's life.

Popular historian Douglas Brinkley writes about the enduring impact of the environmental passions of a president in The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, coming June 30 from HarperCollins.

Another passionate conservationist is the subject of journalist Mark Seal's Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa, published in May by Random House. Seal writes about the remarkable life and brutal murder of naturalist and filmmaker Joan Root.

In We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, published in May by Ballantine, historian Gillian Gill examines the "most influential marriage of the 19th century." Queen Victoria and Prince Albert shared both power and a great love story; Gill also reveals how, after Albert's early death, Victoria nurtured the public image of their relationship into near legend.

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal by Mark Ribowsky dishes up the inside story of the queens of '60s girl groups and their role in Berry Gordy's Motown empire. Diana Ross' distinctive voice and driving ambition are central to the story; coming from Da Capo Press on June 29.

Lit to lounge by

Though many readers choose lightweight over literary in summer, there are some enticing books by literary writers on the horizon.

Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. He writes a prequel to it in Between the Assassinations (Free Press, just released), a collection of short stories set amid the rich, clashing cultures of India in the late 20th century.

Monica Ali, acclaimed author of Brick Lane, turns her Dickensian talents to the personalities and mysteries in a London restaurant in In the Kitchen (Scribner, June 16).

Thomas Pynchon has a shock in store for his fans: Inherent Vice (Penguin, Aug. 4) is not only a genre novel — Pynchon's no doubt mind-bending take on the Southern California noir detective novel — but weighs in at less than 400 pages.

Richard Russo (Bridge of Sighs) structures the story of That Old Cape Magic (Knopf, Aug. 4) around summer vacations shared by a couple during a long marriage and the raising of their family.

In his first novel in 14 years, Pat Conroy (Beach Music) steps back to the 1960s for the setting of South of Broad (Nan A. Talese, Aug. 11). The story revolves around a group of teens in Charleston, S.C., rattled by the cultural quakes of the era.

The usual suspects

Many bestselling series authors are favorites for summer, and they don't disappoint this year.

James Lee Burke gives Detective Dave Robicheaux the summer off, turning to his Western series with Rain Gods, featuring Billy Bob Holland's cousin, Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland (Simon & Schuster, July 14).

Jeffrey Deaver brings back his series character Kathryn Dance (Sleeping Dolls) chasing a killer in the high-tech thriller Roadside Crosses (Simon & Schuster, just released).

Janet Evanovich returns with irrepressible bounty hunter Stephanie Plum in the aptly titled (given Steph's appetites) Finger Lickin' Fifteen (St. Martin's, June 23).

Sophie Kinsella explores sex, style and shopping in another era in her new novel about a contemporary young woman haunted by the fun-loving ghost of a flapper, Twenties Girl (Dial, July 21).

Sounds like Dean Koontz must have had fun writing Relentless (Bantam, just released) — it's a thriller about a writer who tangles with a sociopathic book critic.

Ridley Pearson adds to his crime series about Idaho Sheriff Walter Fleming with Killer Summer (Putnam, June 30), with Fleming chasing a master thief after an explosion at a pricey wine auction.

Lisa See's latest historical novel is Shanghai Girls (Random House, just released), the story of two Chinese sisters who flee arranged marriages and struggle to make lives in America in the 1930s.

Daniel Silva continues the adventures of art restorer and assassin Gabriel Allon in The Defector (Putnam, July 21), with Allon matching wits with a ruthless Russian arms dealer.

Rebecca Wells gets her Ya-Yas on again with The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder (Harper, July 7), a coming-of-age story about a young Louisiana girl learning the powers of her own "healing hands."

Donald Westlake's final, posthumous (he died in 2008) comic caper about John Dortmunder finds the master thief involved in a reality show about — what else? — a heist, in Get Real (Grand Central, July 17).

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at

Summertime and the reading is easy — and plentiful 06/11/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 12, 2009 5:01pm]
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