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Summer reading for grownups

Tom De Haven makes suggestions for all types of readers, from ”Master and Commander” to ”Last Train to Memphis”

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Because selecting which books to take on vacation is often an exercise in doomed good intentions (”This year I’m really going to finish Moby-Dick!”), here are some available paperbacks chosen above all for warm-weather readability. Ranging from nonfiction best-sellers and nearly forgotten novels of the ’50 and ’60s to a collection of classic ghost stories and several new anthologies of comics for grown-ups, there should be something here for every reader’s taste. (What, no detective novels? Not this time. But if you must have a mystery, try any one of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels.)

The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, by Thomas Schatz, and Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick, are the kind of humongous nonfiction tomes that I usually get at Christmas but don’t find time to read till the following June, July, or August. Schatz’s chatty survey of American moviemaking from the ’20s through 1960 is one of those rare treat-yourself books, peerlessly entertaining. His portraits of moguls, screenwriters, directors, and contract players are deft characterizations, and his examination of the star-making machinery at Warner Bros., MGM, Universal, and Paramount is rich with kiss-and-telling detail.

A masterpiece of historical re-creation, Last Train is also a great social study, indispensable musicology, and the most convincing biography of the future king of rock & roll as a Brylcreemed princeling. Guralnick makes the true story of how a beautiful country boy changed our culture more fascinating than all the legends.

While Elvis was rising to the top, John O’Hara was already there, one of the most famous writers in America. But if his reputation today seems far less secure than Presley’s, there’s also some evidence of a posthumous comeback. Unfortunately, the giant novels that he wrote throughout the 1950s are still not held in terribly high esteem, which is too bad, since books like A Rage to Live, From the Terrace, and especially Ten North Frederick are superb examples of O’Hara’s astonishing grasp of American manners, morals, and hypocrisies. In Ten North Frederick, the central figure, Joseph B. Chapin — a Republican lawyer from Gibbsville, Pa. — is dead when the novel opens, but through a fluid series of flashbacks, we get a layered epic of failed potential and lifelong, withering deceit.

Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy is a saga of a completely different sort. Written almost entirely in dialogue, The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van — collected novels that cumulatively document the Rabbittes of Dublin — reel out with the unplotted sloppiness of daily life. Total immersion in this chaotic working-class Irish family may sound like cultural anthropology, but it’s pure pleasure.

A less rambunctious, more dysfunctional nuclear family is the focus of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. As Pearl Tull lies dying, her grown children grapple with all the half-truths, big lies, and lingering rancor that have strained household relations for half a century. Free of the easy sentimentality that’s gooped up her more recent work, Dinner remains, at least to my mind, Tyler’s best novel.