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Season's readings: What's new

May 26, 2003|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

When it comes to reading, I have big eyes. Every month -- month? every week, day, minute -- I see a book I absolutely must have, one that cannot wait. These books pile up in the corners of my house like half-articulated promises, reminders of everything I've always meant to do. That's the great thing about books, the way they represent not just our experiences but our aspirations, what we might call the better part of ourselves.

Yet at the same time, this also makes the entire enterprise of literature inherently frustrating, since no matter how much you read, there's always more you never quite get around to.

Especially in the summer when the publishing floodgates open. From the couldn't-be-any-more-highly anticipated "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" coming June 21 to Hillary Clinton's memoir "Living History" (Simon & Schuster) earlier that month, there will be a wide variety to choose from.

And, certainly, there will be plenty of easy beach reading with such titles as "The Dirty Girls Social Club: A Novel" (St. Martin's) by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, which tells the story of six longtime Latina friends, and "Maneater" (Simon & Schuster) a Hollywood insider novel from movie producer Brian Grazer's wife, Gigi Levangie Grazer.

So, to help narrow the list of enticing titles coming out this summer, here are a few that promise to be standouts.

Given the disconcerting tenor of the present, "The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions," edited by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, is perhaps an inevitable starting point, featuring more than 600 pages of speeches, policy statements, history and news reports that span every side of the debate. From Marc Cooper and Barbara Ehrenreich to George Will and Ann Coulter ("Americans don't want to make Islamic fundamentalists love us. We want to make them die," she bleats in a typically measured moment), "The Iraq War Reader" revels in complexities that many of us would rather overlook. I'll be keeping this one on my nightstand for a long time, a layman's guide to empire in the Middle East.

And if it's the concept of empire that interests you, also check out "The Kite Runner," a first novel by Afghani Khaled Hosseini, which tells the story of two boys growing up in Kabul in the years leading up to the Soviet invasion -- and what happens afterward.

Closer to home, I'm struck by the number of new volumes with a Southern California connection, as if this summer the region can't help but assert itself. Cris Mazza's "Indigenous: Growing Up Californian," a memoir of a San Diego County childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, plays against one of the most prevalent California stereotypes by focusing on the state as a place to come from, rather than one to come to.

"The Gangster We Are All Looking For," le thi diem thuy's debut novel, takes a different approach to the relationship of place and identity, revolving around a young Vietnamese girl who (not unlike le herself) ends up in San Diego in the late 1970s after having fled across the Pacific with her father, an experience that resides at the center of this deftly written book. "The Laws of Evening," Mary Yukari Waters' first collection of stories, looks the other way, from Los Angeles, where the author now lives, to Japan, where she was born. It charts the little disturbances of men and women as they navigate post-World War II Japanese culture, with its shifting sea of social influences, its ambiguity and culture clash.

Speaking of culture clash, there's also "Southland," the second novel by Nina Revoyr, in which the long unreported murders of four black teenagers during the Watts riots haunt a Japanese American law student who stumbles across the tragedy while looking into her grandfather's will.

What makes a book like "Southland" resonate is that it merges elements of literature and social history with the propulsive drive of a mystery, while evoking Southern California as a character, a key player in the tale. Such aesthetics have long motivated other Southland writers, most notably Walter Mosley, whose second Fearless Jones novel, "Fear Itself," comes out in July.

Fearless and his collaborator Paris Minton are less inscrutable figures than Mosley's iconic Easy Rawlins, but they occupy a similar 1950s-era Los Angeles landscape, and in this novel, which involves a missing persons investigation, they confront the city at its most dangerously elusive, a place where nothing is as it seems.

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