Give Your Mind a Workout While Your Body Gets a Rest


Boston -- These are days when even the people who pose for PowerBook ads don't want to take their laptop to the beach. Or travel the Internet in their hammock.

It's high summer and what everyone needs isn't a home page, but a page-turner. The best way to give your mind a workout while your body gets a rest is to indulge in that wonderfully non-aerobic exercise called summer reading.

So in this spirit, I perform my annual public service for readers who might otherwise be seduced into finally buying "The Bridges of Madison County," thereby keeping it on the best-seller list for yet another -- 153rd (!) -- week. And for readers who might even, gasp, buy a book from the O.J. industry. (NO! Put that book down!)

Unlike other lists, the entries that follow have little in common except that I read them and liked them.

First is Carol Shields' fictional biography of an "ordinary" woman whose examined life turns out to be as full as any head of state's. "The Stone Diaries" follows the carefully labeled but unpredictable stages of Daisy's life from 1905 to the 1990s. "The larger loneliness of our lives evolved from our unwillingness to spend ourselves, stir ourselves," Ms. Shields warns. "We are always damping down our inner weather, permitting ourselves the comforts of postponement, of rehearsal."

Such comforts, even the luxury of an ordinary life, are denied the main character of Lorene Cary's historic fiction. In "The Price of a Child" Ms. Cary has imagined the life of a slave woman who chose freedom in 1855 at the cost of leaving one of her three children in slavery. Ms. Cary excavates an African-American world and sensibility buried as deep as the underground railroad.

Annie Dillard's "The Living" begins at the same historic moment Lorene Cary's story, but it takes place a continent, indeed a whole world, away. "The Living" is about the unforgiving nature of frontier life in the Northwest from the time pioneers struggled to clear the overwhelming forests to the time their followers planted trees. It leaves an indelible impression of how furiously life changed in America.

The changes that Alix Kates Shulman lived through are much more familiar to our time, but no less furious. When the author, best known for her 1970s feminist "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen," turned 50, she set out on another restorative path from activism to solitude, from Manhattan to "the nubble," a promontory on a Maine island. In "Drinking the Rain," she describes how she learned to forage for food, to make do with less, and to discover that "after the freedom that comes from strengthening ego came the freedom that comes from dropping it."

While another best-seller still insists that "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus," it's worth noting at least two books trying to keep the planets in alignment. One is by media watcher Kathleen Hall Jamieson who goes "Beyond the Double Bind" in a study that describes both the traps traditionally laid for women and the Houdini-like escapes we can execute. The other is by Deborah Tannen, who takes her linguistics case to the office. In "Talking 9 to 5," she says how men and women can understand and should work together.

Did I say work? The ever-provocative Jeremy Rifkin has written now about "The End of Work." This time, he says automation really, truly, will end drudgery and/or threaten 70 percent of the work force with unemployment. Which will it be? he asks. Good lives for all, or a widening gap between an overworked elite and an idle poor?

You might call Mr. Rifkin a populist. But then, as Michael Kazin points out, these days we call everyone from Ralph Reed to Robert Reich a populist. In "The Populist Persuasion," Mr. Kazin parses the politics of generations of angry white men who feel caught between the arrogant elite and immoral poor.

Now on to what we call the Academy. "Moo" is the state university -- Moo U -- that Jane Smiley has peopled with an infighting and in-loving campus of academic characters. This is a delicious romp through the world in which students are customers, corporations are investors, state legislatures are enemies and a 700-pound hog named Earl Butz is a maw to be fed.

Anne Tyler's characters are always as quirky as any at Moo U. But in "Ladder of Years," the middle-aged wife and mother feels like "a tiny gnat whirring around her family's edges." Ms. Tyler follows Delia Grinstead as she simply walks out of her old life to see what happens next.

The women in Katharine Weber's novel are much younger, twentysomethings trying to create their lives. In "Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear," Harriet is a photographer who specializes in self-portraits and Anne is the friend who has turned herself into a mistress. This is an arch, high-strung first novel, by a writer strutting her stuff.

If you, too, think you have the write stuff, may I add one last tip. Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" is an honest, wonderfully funny how-to book about writing and life. It's as reassuring as talking to a friend who's clearly more neurotic than you are.

But enough list-making. Off to the hammock.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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