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Beach reads 

Fun stories and chilling tales for the hot days ahead

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The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden

By William Alexander

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 288 pp., $22.95

The last frost was early this year. So if you were one of the lucky ones who tucked their tomato sets in the soil with fingers crossed, you'll be harvesting your first Big Boys this weekend.

What Tracy Kidder did for home building, William Alexander has done for home gardening and landscaping. With aw-shucks honesty and a stand-up comic's timing, Alexander details all phases and fears of a gardener's life. What about the weeds? What about the neighbors (who feed the deer ... and erect two-story garden structures)? What about the groundhogs? When is a ladybug not a ladybug?

While Alexander tends his beloved plants, the reader gets two visions: one of the reader him or herself doing things and feeling exactly the same way, and one of Chevy Chase as gardener, with a worried family keeping a close eye.

In the end, Alexander's Brandywine tomatoes taste so much better than the local Piggly Wiggly fare, it's all worth it. As it will be for you when you finish mulching your German Johnsons and pick up this book.

The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup

Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

Harper, 2006, 416 pp., $14.95

What a brilliant package. Wonderful, witty essays about every country (because that's what it's about, all the countries, playing). Just the right amount of statistics. My copy is dog-eared.

Each nation is represented by a zealous football-loving journalist given a loose rein by the editors to capture that country's personality. No better geography lesson around. Prep for the game, read a chapter (4-8 pages) and check out the pertinent figures (FIFA ranking, nickname, median age, religions, life expectancy, provider of uniforms...).

Excerpted in National Geographic, this cute little paperback shares with the reader the referee's occupations and a genius afterword on political theory and the World Cup. Franklin Foer notes that "communism does not produce a superior soccer society." He also suggests, "If a nation heavily exports oil, it's doomed to underachieve."

The World Cup is, duh, about the world. If you like Nick Hornby (England), Geoff Dyer (Serbia), James Surowiecki (Poland), Eric Schlosser (Sweden) and Tim Parks (Italy), this is your travel guide.

Everyman

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin 2006, 192 pp., $24

You could read this in one afternoon on the beach. But this is a book to savor. Depending on your age, "savor" might not be the correct word. Everyman is the story of one man's mortality. We follow the last years of his full (maybe overfull) life, with snapshots of the past as if we were flipping a photo album at his bedside. The story is full of humor, deceit, and layers and layers of family. Roth is so candid, sometimes so flat in emotion; the reader waits for something upbeat. We see the Danish model in New York just as he does, as we feel the clods of dirt at the grave's edge, and the closeness then distancing of his brothers and daughter. This is a family saga in under 200 pages, with a punch line that reads "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."

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Absurdistan

By Gary Shteyngart

Random House, 2006, 352 pp., $24.95

Find Shteyngart's interview on NPR earlier this month. He blew the rest of the show away, telling his story and reading from his latest book. Remember his first novel, the literary/bookclub gem The Russian Debutante's Handbook? Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and moved to the United States before he was 10. He writes that Absurdistan is about love and geography, with the entertaining plot jumping from Russia to Washington with stops in Vienna, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Occidental College.

Mostly, Absurdistan is a verbal romp about a 30-year-old, wealthy, 300-pound Russian Jew with a keen eye and an ear for irony.

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Specials

By Scott Westerfeld

Simon & Schuster, 2006, 384 pp., $15.95

Scott Westerfeld is that rare author who can be a cult writer of a cool young adult series and, at the same time, have a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Word of mouth from eager-reader teens has placed half a dozen Westerfeld novels on school and library best books lists. He even dedicates Specials to his fans.

This is the modern way in the YA lit world. Authors actively communicate with their enthusiastic young readers through live journals, MySpace and publisher-supported Web sites.

Specials is the final volume in the Uglies trilogy. Part science fiction, part high school drama, Uglies and Pretties, now both in paperback,have held up as thought-provoking thrillers for boys and girls.

Terrorist

By John Updike

Knopf, 2006, 320 pp., $24.95

You don't think of John Updike as a thriller writer. And he's not, until the last 30 pages of his latest book, when it transforms from a good story to a full-fledged page-turner. Terrorist is one man's effort to put a face on the acute violence in the world today. Updike is always there with the specifics; he does his research. We are in the bomb-making garage, barreling toward the tunnel of no return. It is when we meet the people that the book comes alive. An over-the-hill guidance counselor; a zealous imam; a sweet, ambitious singer in the church choir; a manipulative government agent; and a teenage boy wondering who his God is.

If you grew up reading Updike, you can't not read this book. You probably picked it up last week, right? If you have not read John Updike, you will be in for a treat. He's a storyteller trying to make sense of the world, sharing a tale as if it's right out of today's newspaper.

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Water for Elephants

By Sara Gruen

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 335 pp., $23.95

John Irving meets Anne Tyler under a circus tent. They hang around for 70 years and write a book about it.

Actually, Sara Gruen has done it all herself, creating a rich, rolling epic of a story. It's like those circus posters of days gone by: "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you won't believe your eyes. Step forward ladies and gentlemen." And indeed you should, for this is the perfect pass-around summer book.

Jacob Jankowski's 90-year-old memory is foggy about some details, but he remembers his circus days with Benzini Brothers like it was yesterday. Gruen dances him in and out of old age and youth, seducing the reader with you-are-there detail. You are on the circus train as it pounds from town to town. There are many twists and turns in the track and in the plot; circus life is not a smooth path. We are traveling, dare I say the name, not with Ringling, but with the Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth, with freaks and fools, and having the time of our lives. (You have to read Gruen's Author's Note: She visited as many big tops as her sweet veterinarian hero.)

There's suspense, lots of animals, stolen embraces, violence, lost love, popcorn fun and thrills for all ages--and a smart Polish elephant. I read this book in two days at the beach, sheepishly smiling when anyone noticed I wasn't contributing to the conversation. This is a book to get lost in.

The Twelfth Card

By Jeffery Deaver

Pocket Books, 2006 paperback, 576 pp., $9.99

This is the definition of a beach book. What a thriller! Chapel Hill author Deaver is no stranger to the craft. He knows how to work an audience. We are ready and waiting to be drawn into his storytelling again. Forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme is solving another layered mystery. Nothing is as it seems, given the steady dose of clues. I thought I had figured it out as Deaver was tying up loose ends. When I looked up we still had 150 pages to go!

Why is a high school girl from Harlem being chased? You know that rookie cop is going to get it. What's with the gems? And the hip-hop scenes on the basketball court? Your copy of The Twelfth Card will be sandy and dog-eared by week's end.

  • Fun stories and chilling tales for the hot days ahead

More by John Valentine

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