Summer of the Dork 

Three months of paper cuts

Most adults don't get a summer vacation. After graduation, that almost mythical anticipation of the three-month summer hiatus fades pretty quickly. Icky and prosaic realities of adulthood-like mortgage payments and the funny noise the car makes-don't take a day off, much less an entire season. Instead of the old swimming hole and lazy afternoons in the hammock, there's an endless chain of workdays and worries over the cost of continuously running the air conditioner.

For the sake of what's left of my sanity, this year I'll try to invoke even a fraction of that dreamy, charmed existence that unfolds in childhood summers-while the adults are at work-by losing myself in some good reads. There are several new books on the summer horizon that might afford a bookworm a respite from pressing bills and a lawn that needs mowed, if only for a few hours.

Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, Judith Martin (April).

This book won't be an escape from anything. But for those hours where one has to play grown-up, Miss Manners can help. "Correct behavior" is a topic needing perennial address, as anyone who has ever driven a car, stood in line or come into any kind of contact with humans knows. The Guide was originally published circa 1990 and the "freshly updated" version includes new entries on such vehicles of loutish behavior as cell phones and e-mail. Martin possesses a mix of dry wit and etiquette that's as rare as it is sensible. A dose of her civilized chiding just might reclaim us for polite society after a hot, cranky summer.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco (June).

Umberto Eco-who knocks out a book every couple of years-will give us his latest foray into fiction with The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Eco has always been uniquely able to blend the arcane and erudite with a keen sense of popular culture (no Ivory Tower academic, he), and with Loana, he achieves a synthesis-at least in mode-in the form of a graphic novel. In it, Giambattista Bodini, an aging rare-book dealer, awakes in a Milan hospital having lost his memory, save the recollection of all literature he's ever read. Bodini retreats to the old family home to piece through old newspapers, comics, records, photos and diaries, and reconstructs his past in narrative and graphic form.

If Loana sounds self-indulgent on the aging Eco's part, he's earned the right. His writing is infused with a singular, lively sensibility-so, unparalleled success or spectacular failure, Eco is bound to lead us somewhere interesting.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling (July 16).

This book is going to be on a million "must read" lists this summer, from grade school up. And if it's like the rest of the Harry Potter franchise, it'll deserve the attention.

It's year six for our favorite Hogwarter, who in the last book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was already displaying adolescent angst and attitude (just this side of taking up smoking and loose women).

Book press hasn't exploded yet on the book, though the identity of the "Half-Blood Prince" is already a source of speculation. The buzz will become appropriately ridiculous as mid-July gets closer, causing massive fan rabidity and pooh-poohing from the cynics. (To these last: lighten up.) Any author who can get an 11-year-old and a 60-year-old to read the same 700-page book deserves the attention-and billions of bucks-she gets.

Freddy and Fredericka, Mark Helprin (July).

A reviewer once said, "If I had to be reincarnated as a right-wing Jewish magic-realist with a chip on my shoulder, Mark Helprin would be my first choice." Helprin is indeed an interesting case. Once a literary darling (his first major publication was at an early age and in The New Yorker), he has since been pushed to the edge of the literary earth. This purportedly has everything to do with his writerly split personality: In fiction, Helprin is preternaturally adept with language and given to soaring flights of plot fancy that are, however implausible, somehow plausible. But Helprin is also a wickedly vitriolic conservative pundit who writes frequent op-eds in The Wall Street Journal on foreign policy and penned Bob Dole's 1996 U.S. Senate resignation.

But who cares? Helprin, now officially no longer a literary savant but an older gentlemen of letters, hasn't lost his magical, poetic touch-if last October's The Pacific and Other Stories (Helprin's first toe back into adult fictional waters since 1995's Memoir From Antproof Case) is any indication. Now, less than a year after The Pacific, he's putting out another new work of fiction with Freddy and Fredericka. Earlier Helprin works were witty and comical, grand but marked with a magnificent sadness. This new novel represents a definite departure in style for Helprin-a comic, allegorical farce about a couple of embarrassing, inept British royals who are whisked out of the way via a mission to colonize America. Only Helprin can make this work.

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