Boston -- As a certified member of the pre-post-literate generation, I still think of "summer" as an adjective for "reading." My school days are long past, but this always feels like the time between semesters when we can read for pleasure.
A teacher-friend insists that this reading habit carbon-dates me as ancient. She specializes in the modern aliterate -- students who can read but don't want to.
Every year, she sends her classes off on vacation with reading instructions. Last year, they came back with "book reports" of novels that had -- surprise! -- become movies and then videos. She is threatening to change the assignment to: "What I Watched on My Summer Vacation."
But there are many of us who still choose reading as our favorite summer sport. For those, I hereby assemble my annual, quirky, entirely personal and idiosyncratic list of books I read and liked over the past months.
To begin with, this year a remarkable number of pages were spent analyzing what's gone wrong in public and political life (aside from the dearth of reading). There are user's manuals for ++ Americans who know that something is broken, and useful manuals for anybody who wants to understand the passion for "outsiders."
The most damning of them may be William Greider's "Who Will Tell the People." The Washington he describes is a "grand bazaar" where Democrats, Republicans, lobbyists, corporations and think tanks are in the same tank. Journalists are part of the ruling elite, information and "facts" are manipulated and the people are out of the loop. Will he ever eat lunch in that town again?
In another take on who-dunnit and how-they-dunnit, Donald Barlett and James Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer have documented the shrinking middle class. They call the book, simply, "America: What Went Wrong." Plenty.
Now from the economic to the ecological woes. In the wake of the Earth Summit that ended with a whimper and a wimpy document, Al Gore's thoughtful, gutsy "Earth in the Balance" stands out. This senator-who-can-write calls for a new Global Marshall Plan. He also warns that our addiction to the consumption of the earth, "distracts us from the pain of what we have lost: a direct experience of our connection to the . . . natural world . . . "
This was also, of course, the Year of the Woman in publishing. Susan Faludi and Gloria Steinem both hit the best-seller lists with books about external and internal enemies. Gail Sheehy turned menopause into a growth experience.
Nan Robertson offers a tidbit of good tidings and historic perspective in "The Girls in the Balcony." You don't have to be a journalist to enjoy this book but it helps to remember the bad old days when "newshens" were herded into the balcony from the National Press Club lunches. Her book rescues the history and the heroine-ism of the women who sued the good gray and chauvinistic New York Times.
If you are still, however, overwhelmed by the facts showing that everything is falling apart, you won't find much relief in fiction. Jane Smiley's remarkable novel charts the disintegration of the quintessential American farm family better than any graph. "A Thousand Acres" is the King Lear story transplanted to an Iowa farm family, eloquently retold from the perspective of the eldest daughter. The venue changes from a child's ingratitude to a father's abuse.
Alice Hoffman's landscape is entirely different. "Turtle Moon," is set in the May madness of Verity, Florida, where a woman is murdered. This lush story is a magical, and yet familiar saga of single men and single mothers, bonds that are broken and, sometimes, restored.
The theme of broken families and missing men reappears in Mona Simpson's novel about a grown daughter's obsessive search for her father. "A Lost Father" is a powerful fantasy figure -- savior and devil -- until he is found out. "I learned that people could not be more or better than their lives."
At least two novels this year are variations on the women-who-love-the-wrong-man-too-much themes. One of them is Fay Weldon's "Life Force." From the barely R-rated cover to the conclusion, this is a witty, gossipy and often acerbic look at the British post-Yuppie class. The other is Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale." In a fresh and sassy voice, we overhear four black women from Phoenix looking for Mr. Right and getting over Mr. Wrongs.
Keep these women away from Spalding Gray, the monologuist who is in high neurotic form as the author of "The Impossible Vacation." It's a sometimes raunchy and sometimes harrowing look at one man's attempt to get away from it all, especially from himself.
As for your own impossible vacation, if you find it hard to get time off, read Juliet Schor's "The Overworked American" and weep. She chronicles the rise of work hours in the past 20 years. The average employed person is now on the job an additional 163 hours a year. That alone is enough to make me put my head in the nearest book.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.