Books to Read During a Post-Literate Summer


Boston. -- To a bona fide member of the reading public, what might be called the pre-postliterate generation, news from the book world is not encouraging. Libraries are getting the budget ax. The paperback best-seller list is replete with novels written from movie scripts. Publishers' talk at a recent booksellers' convention wasn't about censorship but survival.

In response to this dire forecast, I have come up with a proposal. What we need is more summer.

My entirely unscientific survey shows that more people read lying in hammocks, sitting on lounge chairs, rocking on porches and spacing out on beaches than they do throughout the rest of the year. Books are our summer furniture, sort of like wicker, and our summer nourishment like bluefish and raspberries. They taste better in season.

In this spirit, I now offer goodies to extend the summer mind if not the calendar. For your eyes, here is my annual, quirky, entirely personal and idiosyncratic collection of books that I read, enjoy and happily pass on to the next vacationer.

First of all, this was a good year for memoirs. The most impressive was ethicist Sissela Bok's book about her mother, the writer, ambassador, wife and Nobel laureate of the title, "Alva Myrdal." All through her life, Myrdal asked "How do I become myself?" Her daughter's great gift -- clear-eyed and kind, knowing and familiar, ripe with knowledge about the conflicts in women's lives -- is to describe how her mother did become "herself."

This theme of identity inevitably infuses Lorene Cary's memoirs of her life as the second black girl at the elite prep school, St. Paul's. Ms. Cary is a member of the generation invited to walk through doors previously locked. In "Black Ice" she writes intimately and thoughtfully about what it's like to be female in a male world, black in a white world, whole in a world that TC subdivides her by race and gender.

Such subjects are also tackled in a wholly different way by Shelby Steele, whose book "The Content of Our Character" has become part of the national debate about racial policies. Mr. Steele's beliefs in the destructive power of affirmative action on minorities are restricted by his life in academia, but the argument far more layered, more psychologically complex than it appears in political debate. It's worth reading the unexpurgated version.

Then turn to E.J. Dionne's treatise on "Why Americans Hate Politics." Mr. Dionne has done a fine job describing the frustrations of the public and the paralysis of government, in what he calls the "politics of false choices."

This is the last time we'll have Harry Angstrom to kick around anymore. John Updike's famous Rabbit, who peaked as a high school basketball player and prematurely aged as a Toyota salesmen meets his death-wish in "Rabbit At Rest." Nobody writes as well as Mr. Updike, or with as sorry an insider's knowledge, about his generation of American men, their marriages and their father-son relationships.

From another coast and sensibility comes Alice Adams' new novel, "Caroline's Daughters." It's about one mother and her five grown-but-not-yet-found-themselves daughters from three husbands who form an interlocking directorate of Northern California angsts. There is something real in this Caroline who describes her daughters in one blisteringly honest moment as "beautiful, selfish, spoiled and greedy girls, San Francisco girls, perfect products of that spoiled and lovely city."

The families in Jane Smiley's novellas, titled "Ordinary Love and Good Will," are stripped of West Coast gloss. They stand pristine and sad. In one story, the effects of one mother's split for freedom are seen in her five children 20 years later. In the other, a father's perfectionism and his back-to-the-earth attempts at control can't prevent his family from coming apart at the seams.

First novels are not something publishers are eager to produce these days, but two of them made this list. "The Music Room" by Dennis McFarland is a strong and gracefully written entry about the journey of a man trying to understand his brother's suicide and his own troubled life.

The other is only technically a "first." "A Pale View of Hills" is the paperback reissue of the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the remarkable "Remains of the Day." This elegiac tale takes place in postwar Japan. There is a surreal quality to the tale of two women caught between cultures, East and West, traditional and modern.

Finally, as part of an annual summer travel through books I should have but didn't -- despite having grown up at the height of the "core curriculum" -- I bought a used version of the complete works of George Eliot. I'm halfway into "Middlemarch" and can't think of a better place to spend July.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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