SUMMERTIME and the reading is easy

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THE LAUGHING PLACE By Pam Durban, Charles Scribner's Son, 344 pp., $21.

DEAR JAMES By Jon Hassler, Ballantine Books, 438 pp., $21.

THE DAY By Douglas Hobbie, A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Co., 241 pp., $22.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

DURABLE GOODS By Elizabeth Berg, Random House, 192 pp., $17.

AFTER ALL THESE YEARS By Susan Isaacs, HarperCollins, 343 pp., $23.

CAPE OF STORMS: THE FIRST LIFE OF ADAMASTOR, By Andre Brink, Simon & Schuster, 141 pp., $16.

THE INVENTION OF TRUTH By Marta Morazzoni, Translated from the Italian by M. J. Fitzgerald, Alfred A. Knopf, 100 pp., $18.

A RIVER SUTRA By Gita Mehta, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 291 pp., $20.

Summer is a time for travel, a time for enjoying new experiences, and a time to relax. Reading offers a way of doing all of the above: a way of exploring - or escaping to - a fictional world, like our own, yet refreshingly different.

SOUTHERN writers have traditionally been adept at extracting the maximum of human interest from a few square miles of thinly populated but tradition-saturated territory. Pam Durban's ambitious and evocative first novel, The Laughing Place, is a deeply satisfying, richly textured account of a young woman who revisits her hometown in South Carolina only to discover that much of what she had always believed about her family and her past might not have been true.

The story, narrated by its sensitive yet sensible heroine, moves along with an agreeable slowness, with ample opportunity for readers to savor the oppressive heat of a Carolina summer, the look of a Southern downtown, the contrasts of character types, and the narrator's thoughtful but unponderous reflections on the meaning of life. In Annie Vess, Durban has created an unusually likable heroine, neither rebel nor conformist: simply (and not so simply) an honest person trying to make sense of her complicat ed heritage.

IN his seventh novel, Dear James, Jon Hassler returns once again to the fictional Minnesota town of Staggerford, which he has been bringing to life so successfully in his previous books. Miss Agatha McGee, a flinty and intelligent parochial-school teacher prematurely forced into retirement by the closing of her school, has been carrying on a long-distance correspondence with James O'Hannon, a wise and sympathetic Roman Catholic priest living in Ireland. Following a distressing rift in their epistolary re lationship, Agatha and James meet in Italy, where she and some fellow-Staggerfordians have gone on a guided tour. But, while the teacher and the priest are repairing and strengthening their friendship amid the edifying sights of the Old World, back in Minnesota, Imogene Kite, the town troublemaker, is plotting to destroy the estimable Agatha's sterling reputation.

In this engagingly unorthodox love story, Hassler once again demonstrates the fine, old-fashioned gifts of solid storytelling, skillful character portrayal, and unvarnished good writing that have won him a loyal following. A sort of kinder, gentler Sinclair Lewis, Hassler provides an affectionate, yet mildly satiric picture of Midwestern small-town life, alive to its special satisfactions but never blind to its irritations and constraints. At a time when so many novels boasting lurid subject matter turn out to be dull as dishwater, Hassler's fiction is proof that a good writer perceives and communicates just what it is that can make ordinary life endlessly fascinating.

A FAMILY Thanksgiving gathering in New England is the setting for Douglas Hobbie's second novel, The Day. Jack Fletcher, a semi-successful architect, and his wife, Gwen, are spending the holiday with her classic, upper-middle-class family, who would rather talk golf scores than discuss world problems or tell corny jokes than delve into their more private troubles. Only one year ago, Gwen's sister, Clare, a forthright, unconventional woman dedicated to social causes, shocked her already estranged family b y committing suicide. Now, no one wants to mention her name. Jack, who had an affair with her before marrying Gwen, feels as if he is Clare's only posthumous ally. The events of this Thanksgiving day reunion, interspersed with recollections of the departed Clare, are filtered through Jack's alienated consciousness. Despite his righteous indignation about Clare, he is not always a reliable witness.

Hobbie, whose award-winning first novel, ``Boomfell,'' also explored the domestic lives of middle-class New England professionals, faithfully renders the dress, habits, and speech of this particular social group while capturing the quirkier twists and turns of Jack's ongoing interior monologue. The events of this ``day'' are shown to epitomize the patterns of a lifetime and continue to reverberate long after the reader has closed the book.

WITH a military father whose job has kept the family moving from one army base to another, the prepubescent heroine of Elizabeth Berg's debut novel, Durable Goods has a hard time figuring out where her roots are. Twelve-year-old Katie, her older sister, Diane, and their father are living on a base in Texas as the novel opens. The girls sorely miss their mother, who died two years ago, leaving them in the less-than-tender hands of their surly, tight-lipped father, whose preferred means of communication is

corporal punishment.

Katie finds comfort in the memories of her gentle, understanding mother, and she's also excited by the fact that Diane has found a steady boyfriend, who - as Katie naively dreams - might just be the man to take them away from all this. Katie's own best friend is a comically precocious 14-year-old named Cherylanne, who is a walking encyclopedia of ``glamour'' tips culled from teen magazines. Cherylanne's mother, Belle, is a kind-hearted, patient woman who offers Katie some of the support and understanding

she's been missing at home. When their father announces they'll be moving again, this time from Texas to Missouri, Katie and Diane rebel - with mixed consequences.

Berg tells this story from Katie's appealingly ingenuous yet bravely stoical viewpoint, deftly conveying the inflections of her heroine's voice: its bright accents of girlish spontaneity as well as the firmer undertones of the wiser young woman who will emerge from the girl in years to come.

BEING accused of murder is never fun - unless someone like novelist Susan Isaacs is on hand to transform crime and mayhem into nail-biting comedy suspense. Issacs is the witty and best-selling author of ``Shining Through'' and ``Compromising Positions.'' In her latest, After All These Years, Isaacs revisits her familiar suburban stomping grounds with a story of a middle-aged housewife who turns detective when the police accuse her of her ex-husband's death.

Rosie and Richie Meyers, both high school teachers - he of math, she of English - were once a happily married couple raising two sons in their modest, comfortable home. Somewhere along the way, things got even better - or seemed to: Richie became involved in a computerized research business that made him a multimillionaire. They moved to a fancy house on Long Island's North Shore. But while the family was cheerfully adapting to a posher lifestyle, Richie was also deciding to trade in Rosie for a younger,

glitzier mate. As the novel opens, the Meyerses are in the midst of divorce proceedings, when Rosie, lonely in her half-empty bed and craving a midnight snack, stumbles over Richie's body en route to the refrigerator. In her shock, she makes the understandable mistake of trying to pull the fatal kitchen knife from his chest.

Probably the most plausible element in the imbroglio that follows is the alacrity with which the singularly unimaginative policeman in charge of the case tries to pin the crime on Rosie: Her fingerprints are on the knife and she does stand to gain as her husband's heir, since the divorce has not yet been finalized. Rosie's subsequent adventures - dodging police surveillance, conducting her own investigation of suspects and witnesses while on the lam, crashing a Greenwich Village pad of a former student, rekindling an old romance - strain credulity as fact, while remaining a bit too predictable as fiction. Some readers will doubtless get a kick out of following the spunky heroine on her peregrinations, but others may find the jokes about middle-aged flab, nouveau riche lifestyles, stuffy neighbors, and so on, a little lacking in freshness. Still, it's a diverting enough summer read.

THERE'S a hint of comedy - of a very different sort - in South African novelist Andre Brink's complexly imagined yet simply told fable, Cape of Storms: The First Life of Adamastor. Brink, better known for his long, realistic novels involving history, society, and politics, ventures here into the realm of myth. His starting point is the legendary Titan Adamastor, who appears in the works of 16th-century European writers as an embodiment of the wild, untamed African Cape of Storms (later renamed the Cape o f Good Hope).

The original Adamastor fell in love with a sea nymph who rejected him, then was tricked and turned into a mountain (the Cape itself). What Brink has done is to reimagine the story from the viewpoint of the hapless giant. His Adamastor is a young African tribal leader amazed by the sudden apparition on his shoreline of strange-looking creatures seemingly ``hatched'' from ``eggs'' (lifeboats) laid by a huge, floating sea-bird (sailing ship). The sea nymph is a mysterious female stowaway, left behind by the

Portuguese sailors.

Adamastor's sometimes comic attempts at wooing the uncomprehending woman are woven into a harrowing account of the hardships faced by the tribe in their wanderings and of the cruel deceptions perpetrated upon them by the European sailors. Brink has Adamastor tell the story in his own words, which gently yet forcefully convey the wonder, confusion, and excitement of this fatal clash between two cultures. Attractively illustrated with a map and woodcuts by Julie Metz, this small, deceptively slight-looking

book encapsulates a turning point in history.

ALSO small and handsomely designed, Marta Morazzoni's novel The Invention of Truth, translated from the Italian by M. J. Fitzgerald, features on its dust jacket scenes from the famous Bayeux Tapestry, the masterpiece of medieval art that serves as the inspiration for two interwoven stories.

In the first, Morazzoni portrays the creation of the tapestry at the behest of an unnamed medieval queen, who summons the 300 best needlewomen in the land to collaborate with her on this massive undertaking. This part of the novel is seen through the eyes of one of the needlewomen, a young wife and mother from the French town of Amiens.

The second narrative, alternating with the first, is set in Amiens some seven centuries later, when the great Victorian art critic and social prophet John Ruskin, by now an elderly man, is revisiting the scene of his earlier travels.

As the medieval women work diligently on this great project, with an exemplary blend of pride and humility, the Victorian art critic wanders the grimy, 19th-century streets of Amiens, contemplating its famous cathedral. Tapestry and cathedral embody Ruskin's beliefs about art, especially Gothic art, which he championed at a time when it was considered coarse and rude.

Morazzoni's vision of the queen and her women serenely intent on their task, wholesomely proud yet free from idle ambition and rivalry, is in keeping with Ruskin's vision of Gothic art as the product of a culture that reconciled the often divergent values of individual expression and social cooperation. The women are proud of their skill, but petty vanity and egotism are submerged in their devotion to a larger cause. The queen is respected for her leadership and because she works as assiduously as any ot her woman.

But when Morazzoni turns her attention to Ruskin himself, she has little to add in the way of insights into his thought or character. (She even mistakenly refers to him as ``Sir Ruskin,'' although perhaps this is a translator's error?) For any reader who may be familiar with his work - in particular, ``The Stones of Venice,'' ``The Seven Lamps of Architecture,'' and ``Unto this Last'' - Morazzoni's shadowy portrait of him (and even her more luminous picture of the tapestry-makers) may seem a little thin and insubstantial next to his challenging ideas about art, society, religion, economics, and ethics. Nevertheless, her novel has a limpid beauty all its own, a cool clarity that makes it something of an oasis in the long hot summer. And if it sends you back to reading Ruskin, that's one more thing to be grateful for.

VACATION, ideally, is an opportunity for renewal - whether it's a well-earned rest or a stimulating change of pace. The narrator of Gita Mehta's novel A River Sutra is an Indian government worker who seeks rest but finds stimulation. Hoping to relax from the hurly-burly of city life, he takes a position as manager of a rest house on the leafy banks of India's holy river, the Narmada.

This peaceful retreat proves to be fertile ground for studying the amazing variety of human behavior. Drawn to the sacred river, a wide array of pilgrims, ascetics, saints, and sinners - even an archaeologist - furnish stories to fascinate, bemuse, and astonish the rest-house manager.

There are stories of people deranged by love, of discouraged people who come to the river in the hope of healing. A young Jain, heir to his family's fortune, tells how he cast off his worldly possessions to follow the harsh, self-denying life of a Jain monk. A Muslim music teacher describes the tragic fate of his most gifted pupil, who had the ability to transport listeners into a state of mystic Sufi rapture. A little girl is rescued by a wandering Hindu ascetic from a life of degradation - with ever mo re surprising results.

Artists, musicians, outlaws, monks, and mullahs, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, believers, and skeptics - all these diverse individuals and types are presented as tributaries of the great river of Indian culture. Mehta, author of two previous novels, writes with power and simplicity, cleverly weaving the stories into a well-designed whole.

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