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Remember summer reading assignments? They began in elementary school, when you received a long list in the mail in June and had to check off a certain number of books read by the time school rolled around in September. The trend continued up through high school, when ghosts of Beowulf, John Steinbeck and Ayn Rand haunted the hot summer days. Summer vacation may be a thing of the past for busy professionals today, but that doesn’t mean that summer reading has to disappear as well. The important thing to remember is that unlike the required reading of your school days, which often was more painful than pleasurable, summer reading is supposed to be enjoyable to you. So this summer, skip the obvious choices of Bill Clinton and Stephen King and try out one or several of the following suggestions. Mix up your choices, challenge yourself — and see how many you can get through before the kids go back to school. ESCAPE THE EVERYDAY “The Circus in Winter,” by Cathy Day (Harcourt, $23): Day’s wonderful fiction debut is a collection of interconnected short stories centered on the small Indiana town that serves as the winter home for a traveling circus and its performers. The book, based on the author’s real hometown, covers in its own quirky way the last 140 years of American history better in a mere 288 pages than many 500-page monstrosities and is more emotionally satisfying. While each story is self-contained, all the stories add up to chapters in a novel about the town. Demonstrating a lean, spare style that puts a premium on narrative economy without sacrificing lyricism, Day shows that the ties that bind us to our hometowns — from which we struggle to break free — will ultimately call us home. “A Good Year,” by Peter Mayle (Alfred A. Knopf, $24): Grab a bottle of wine and some cheese and dig into the fifth novel by Mayle, whose other titles include “A Year in Provence” and “Toujours Provence.” Londoner Max Skinner inherits his uncle’s estate and vineyard in — where else — Provence, at the same time that he finds himself unemployed. As Max struggles to bring the estate back from the edge of disrepair, the reader gets a satisfying, lighthearted read, as well as an education in viniculture. CURRENT EVENTS “Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War,” by Evan Wright (Putnam Adult, $24.95): An expansion of Wright’s highly praised three-part series that appeared in Rolling Stone during the summer of 2003, the nonfiction narrative follows the 23 Marines of First Recon who led the attack on Iraq. This elite unit, nicknamed “First Suicide Battalion,” searched out enemy fighters by racing ahead of American battle forces and literally driving into suspected ambush points. Written with brutal honesty, raw intensity and startling intimacy, “Generation Kill” is destined to become a classic and take its place in the canon of the most captivating and authentic works of war literature. “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” by Stephen Coll (Penguin Press, $29.95): For almost a quarter-century, Afghanistan has been the playing field for concentrated covert operations by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies — invisible wars that sowed the seeds of the Sept. 11 attacks and that provide its context. Drawing from extensive firsthand accounts, “Ghost Wars” will no doubt become the definitive work for understanding the confrontation between the United States and radical Islam. “The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures From King John to John Ashcroft,” by Samuel Dash (Rutgers University Press, $22.95): Dash, the ex-DA of Philadelphia, was the lawyer most responsible for uncovering the abuses of power in the Nixon White House. Covering 800 years of history, this analysis of our vanishing Fourth Amendment rights will still feel frighteningly relevant in a post-Sept. 11 world. FRIENDS AND RELATIONS “Truth & Beauty,” by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, $23.95): The author of last year’s “Bel Canto” pens the poignant, funny and true story of her 20-year friendship with writer Lucy Grealy. Written more as a love letter than a memoir, the story moves in chronological bursts of dialogue and excerpts of Lucy’s letters, moving from the friends’ instant connection in graduate school to the more tumultuous world beyond. Patchett beautifully describes friendship at its most basic: a love story. “Something Borrowed,” by Emily Giffin (St. Martin’s Press, $21.95): Rachel has a problem: She’s found the man of her dreams — he just happens to be engaged … to her best friend. As the wedding day draws near and the affair continues, Rachel has to come to decide whether to go after what she really wants, or settle, as she always has done, for second best. Just in time for high wedding season, this laugh-out-loud, engrossing novel highlights the competition close friends are familiar with. TRUE CRIME “The Kills,” by Linda Fairstein (Scribners, $25): The real-life head of the sex crimes unit in Robert Morgenthau’s Manhattan DA’s office concocts a fun, satisfying read that is heavy on twists and turns. In this latest in the Alexandra Cooper crime series, Fairstein’s fictional alter ego, a New York assistant DA, is handed a pair of unsolvable murder cases. In the process of solving the cases, Cooper uncovers a spy battle stretching back to the dawn of the Cold War. “Past Due,” by William Lashner (William Morrow, $24.95): You’ll want to clean the grit from under your fingernails after reading this crime thriller from a Philadelphia lawyer-author. You may not admire the legal ethics of Victor Carl, the hero of Lashner’s hard-boiled fiction, a defense attorney who fights all the right fights for all the wrong reasons. You will, however, be impressed by this page-turning legal thriller that has more than a little literary merit. And Lashner’s evocation of Philadelphia is spot-on. THE FAMILY WAY “Crossing California,” by Adam Langer (Penguin, $24.95): The first novel from Book magazine editor and print journalist Langer follows the changes that occur in the lives of three neighborhood families in Chicago over the years 1979-81. The overlapping subplots, combined with the classic middle- vs. upper-class conflict, make it interesting, while the characters and the familiar situations they get into make it warm and hilarious. Reviewers and readers praise Langer’s ability to balance intense detail and cultural references with fully developed, likeably real characters. “The Laments,” by George Hagen (Random House, $24.95): The funny yet tragic tale of a family mercilessly dragged around the world by a father’s inherent restlessness. Since all families are dysfunctional at heart, the Lament family seems somewhat universal. The constant flux of the family’s world requires its members, including elder son Will and the younger twins, Marcus and Julius, to stay close through amusing adventures and the hardships of growing up. Hagen’s debut is a melodic mix of love, humor and sadness that is the truth of family life. “Little Children,” by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95): A group of thirty-something parents of young children are raising their kids in a quiet suburb where nothing ever seems to happen. The book’s twists in plot, including the return of a convicted pedophile and an affair that threatens to destroy two families, are not the stuff of light-hearted fiction, but Perrotta molds them into an amusing satire. Although this is a comedy, the dark aspects of parenting come through with a vengeance. PURE FUN “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” by Christopher Ricks (Ecco Press, $26.95): A scholar examines Bob Dylan’s lyrics as poetry, showing how Dylan’s lyrics tackle the largest themes in human experience, and places the bard from Hibbing, Minn., in the company of the greatest writers in the English language. Whether you’re already a fan or not, this is altogether a wonderful way to consider Dylan’s art. “The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter: A Treasury of Myths, Legends, and Fascinating Facts,” by David Colbert (Berkley Publishing Group, $14): A reference companion to the five books in the “Harry Potter” series that reveals exactly how much history and mythology J.K. Rowling has woven into her epic story. Potter fanatics will devour this companion, which divulges everything from the Latin derivations of Harry’s spells to why witches fly on brooms. This book should make the wait for book No. 6 — now officially titled “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” — a bit easier. ANTICIPATING ATHENS “Inside the Olympics: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Politics, the Scandals and the Glory of the Games,” by Richard W. Pound (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95): The Olympics are no longer all about sports. Over time, world politics, drug use and bribed judges have changed the Games from a test of talent and skill to a spectacle of scandal. Pound, a former Olympic medalist and 25-year member of the International Olympic Committee, gives an insider’s account of the politics within the IOC. The 2004 Summer Olympics run in Athens from Aug. 13 through 29 this year, so try to get through this one in time to appreciate the true depth of the games.

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