A poet friend was on her way to Spain last month, and called the day before the flight to ask what novels I might recommend. Given that the criteria for international travel are different from those for, say, a trip to a Maine lake, we factored in the usual cross-cultural components: Must be lightweight enough, literally, to justify being hauled thousands of miles; must be substantial enough for the same reason; must be transcendent enough to yank one out of an existential crisis if one is found staggering on the streets of Cordoba alone. She wound up with two slender, eminently deserving novels: Philip Roth's "Everyman" and Ian McEwan's "Saturday" -- one by an American and one by a Brit, the first about the decline of life and the second about its advance. Altogether, I hoped , she would find them a lovely set of bookends for the mind. She called a week later to say her host had made off with both works, so she had returned to the primary source, and was writing poems instead.
All of which is to say that reading in the lighter months is an activity that involves more than simply putting eyes to page. Like gazing on pictures of Greece or Chilmark months or years before you get there, the point is often the planning of the journey. One must choose well and larkily. If you lug along Robert Musil on your first trip to Prague, for instance, four out of five of you (I would be one of the four) will sneakily leave it in an airport loo, and then feel bad for having done so. If, on the other hand, you opt for James Patterson , the same discard will happen, along with atrophy of the mind and spirit. Best to go for the middle ground -- the contemporary equivalent of Jane Austen rather than "Ulysses" or the penny-pulps. Or take one of each: the soothing, the brilliantly demanding, the guilty pleasure.
With those measures in mind, then, what follows is a guide to the best and most recent of the publishers' harvest: a list with enough range and possibility to tempt even the most proper host toward larcenous behavior. The glitter novel of the season is Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns," following his international best seller, "The Kite Runner" ; this one traces the lives of two women in Afghanistan over three decades . The spring has several memorable offerings from literary all-stars. Don DeLillo's "Falling Man" is a spare, stunning look at the lives of two people after 9/11. Ian McEwan has also adhered to the less-is-more school, with his novella-size "On Chesil Beach" capturing the heart - wrenching center of a marriage gone sad. Michael Ondaatje delivers a haunting, persuasive "double" of a novel, weaving together two discrete story lines between Northern California and France in "Divisadero." In "The Pesthouse," Jim Crace imagines a futuristic world turned Luddite, where scary Baptists spend their time burying the wheel. No less imaginative is Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," a garrulous, noir-like epic wherein the Jewish state has emerged in Alaska.
Peter Ho Davies delivers a deceptively soft and gorgeous story in "The Welsh Girl," about a romance during World War II between a shepherdess and a captured German soldier. In "Zoli," the Irish writer Colum McCann painstakingly reconfigures the life story of a Romani poet. Richard Flanagan , whose "Gould's Book of Fish" was an acquired taste, has returned to earth a bit with "The Unknown Terrorist," about a society collapsing under its own fears. Annie Dillard constructs an old-fashioned portrait of a marriage, set in Provincetown , in "The Maytrees." And Nathan Englander, heralded for his earlier story collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," has returned with a first novel in "The Ministry of Special Cases" ; set during Argentina's "dirty war" of the 1970s , it's a story about memory and identity -- and of a son "disappeared" by the country's totalitarian regime.
Fans of the Japanese magical realist Haruki Murakami ("Kafka on the Shore," "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman") will be happy to have his 12th work of fiction , "After Dark," a dreamlike set of interconnected stories taking place over one long Tokyo night. No less celebrated in the international realm is the reputation of Roberto Bolano , the Chilean writer whose death in 2003 sparked a posthumous attention to his work (he is being compared these days with W. G. Sebald and José Saramago). "The Savage Detectives," his 1998 novel just published here for the first time, is a sprawling story of two Quixote-like poets traveling under a darkening sky.
We tend to overlook the paperback original, probably because the very fact suggests that the publisher has deemed it a second-tier book. But who remembers that Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter" was first published as a Vintage paperback? I rest my case. This season's fare includes Naeem Murr's "The Perfect Man," published last year in the United Kingdom; it's the captivating story of a British-Indian boy transplanted to small-town (and sinister) Missouri in the 1950s. And Michael Thomas's "Man Gone Down," his first novel, is a Ralph Ellison -like epic of a young black man trying to survive the American Dream. Ben Dolnick's first novel, "Zoology," is also in paper; it's a coming-of-age story that includes a lot of cleaning the goat cages at the Central Park Zoo.
Domesticated mammals abound in Cathleen Schine's hardcover "The New Yorkers," a love note to Manhattan populated by that friendliest cast of characters: dogs and the humans who walk them. If you take your humor drier and darker than this, Christopher Buckley's "Boomsday" will appeal; the author of "Thank You for Smoking" perceives the latest threat to modern civilization as the blog. And the comic book has its heyday in a first novel from game designer Austin Grossman; "Soon I Will Be Invincible," a la "Dr. Strangelove," boasts as its two chief characters a madman named Doctor Impossible and sweet cyborg named Fatale. Ladies and gentlemen, start your hard drives.
Acclaimed Irish writer John Banville sneaked in a crime novel under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black -- the result being "Christine Falls," a dark and morbid story set in 1950s Dublin that Banville seems to have taken great guilty pleasure in constructing. Senior Inspector Arkady Renko returns in Martin Cruz Smith's "Stalin's Ghost"; the detective first introduced in "Gorky Park" here battles the grim and destructive elements of modern-day Moscow.
With the arrival of the warmest months, we have works from several seasoned authors to anticipate: Rick Moody's trio of post-9/11 novellas, "Right Livelihoods," and Lisa See's "Peony in Love," set in 17th - century China, are both headed for bookstores. August brings us Amy Bloom's "Away," the story of a young Russian immigrant facing her own crucibles of America, and Dennis McFarland's "Letter From Point Clear," a family drama set in Alabama. None of which will keep diehards from the queue leading up to July 21, when the final Harry Potter ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows") is set to bombard the planet.
Ah, well, for those of you who prefer your reality neat, there is always nonfiction. The season has offered wonderful fare from biography to natural science, and we give you only a smattering of it here. If you want to visit or revisit the days of an imperial presidency and the sidekick who helped create it, there is Robert Dallek's "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power." After her definitive "Virginia Woolf," Hermione Lee crafts another masterful literary biography in "Edith Wharton." Alexander Waugh decided to spill the beans on a fragile patriarchy in a group portrait of his grandfather Evelyn Waugh and the rest of the Waugh boys in "Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family" (see review on Page E6).
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss casts a wide net over several moments of heroism and folly in his "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989." Walter Isaacson braved the vast and previously sealed personal correspondence of Albert Einstein for "Einstein: His Life and Universe." And William Langewiesche tells who's got what and why in "The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor."
Some of the early reportage of the great war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski , who died in January, is collected in "Travels With Herodotus," about his forays beyond the Iron Curtain beginning in the 1950s. Two additions to our understanding of medicine have appeared this spring: Jerome Groopman's "How Doctors Think" and Atul Gawande's "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance." Science-trained novelist Barbara Kingsolver turned her attention to home - grown chickens, asparagus, and the politics of eating in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life." Coming in July is Chris Mooney's riveting "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming," a work inspired by the destruction of the author's mother's house in Hurricane Katrina. Closer to home is the story of a tempest in a bone-china teacup in "Cape Wind: Money,
Acclaimed reporter Natalie Angier has summed up the universe nicely in "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science." Biologist Bernd Heinrich crunches the data on his own life in a scientific memoir, "The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology." Given the outpouring of autobiographies over the past few years, this season's offerings of literary memoir have been relatively scant. But there are a few prizes to anticipate: Susan Richard Shreve's account of her childhood bout with polio, in "Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven," is due out this month . In August, the wonderful Mary Gordon, who captured her father a decade ago in "Shadow Man," returns with the other side of the duet in "Circling My Mother: A Memoir." And the sleeper of the season may be "Here If You Need Me," by Kate Braestrup, whose abrupt widowhood set her on the road to becoming a chaplain in the Maine woods.
Readers intent upon swimming the Wellfleet ponds this summer may well take a break with "Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There From Here," by Akiko Busch, coming in July. But those of you stuck in the world of summer re runs, poised for more death-defying tales of Dog the Bounty Hunter (street name Duane "Dog" Chapman), will just have to settle down and rebait your hooks. His tell-all memoir, "You Can Run But You Can't Hide" -- full of drugs, guns, and God -- won't be released until early August.
Happy fishing, everybody.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.