18 Pieces of Chicken for $3.40

July 01, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — It's summertime and the living is not easy for the book world. On the movie screen, Jack Nicholson is transformed from a civilized editor to a werewolf just to fight off the sharks in the business.

In real life, the gap between rich and poor writers is now greater than that between CEOs and drones. The New Yorker just chronicled the plight of James Wilcox whose six novels have produced rave reviews, small sales and shrinking advances. When visited recently, Mr. Wilcox ''had just finished the last of three meals he'd extracted from 18 pieces of chicken he bought at Key Food for $3.40.''

Meanwhile ''The Bridges of Madison County'' has been on the fiction best-seller list for 98 weeks. The non-fiction list has Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, Dan Quayle, William Bennett and two books on near-death experiences.

Against this dire background, it is time to offer up my annual, entirely quirky list of best, modest and non-sellers. These are books that have nothing in common except their reader's pleasure.

Let me begin the list back at the wolf pack.

Alice Hoffman's latest fantasy, ''Second Nature,'' is based on the boy-raised-as-wolf fable. But we're not talking werewolf here. Alice Hoffman's novels require leaps of faith but this one is wonderfully grounded in the relationships of a woman and the men -- son, father, ex-husband, lover -- around her.

The feral creature in Margaret Atwood's latest, high-energy novel, ''The Robber Bride,'' is a two-footed one named Zenia. She is the malevolent force who insinuates herself into the lives of three thoroughly modern women -- a war historian, a New Age dreamer, a businesswoman. After she has stolen their confidence and their men, these women finally and deliciously wake up and seek revenge.

The ''Sleeping Beauties'' in Susanna Moore's novel are not under any hex. They are emotionally dozing in the shade of their lush Hawaiian past. The novel's Prince Charming, however, turns out to be a Hollywood Mr. Wrong.

If Hawaii is the main character in Ms. Moore's novel, the harsh Newfoundland coast is the star of ''The Shipping News.'' This is a humane and comedic story of a loser named Quoyle. It's so filled with quirky speech and oddball characters that it's a wonder author E. Annie Proulx has escaped the fate of James Wilcox.

Buy this book or she may yet be sharing his chicken.

''The Unredeemed Captive'' is storytelling of another sort -- history as it should be. John Demos has written a moving, speculative narrative about an 18th-century Puritan girl taken prisoner during an Indian raid. When she refuses to be ''repatriated,'' it's as challenging to her family and culture as if an American hostage in Iran had refused liberation.

This is a prime time for people telling their own tales. We have a bumper crop of memoirs. You don't have to be Irish, or a journalist, or even male to savor Pete Hamill's ''A Drinking Life.'' Mr. Hamill is best describing the working-class childhood when he learned that ''drinking was part of being a man. . . . Drinking was the reward for work, the fuel of celebrations, the consolation for death or defeat.'' Hard lessons to unlearn.

Madeleine Kunin's memoir, ''Living a Political Life,'' is more intimateand brave than the usual political fare.

The first woman governor of Vermont writes about family, feminism, crying and legislating at a time when, ''the female politician is unexpected; her presence provokes a brief digression during which the public wanders off into internal musings about how this woman is like a man and yet not like a man.''

I think I was the last in my crowd to read Maya Angelou's memoir, ''I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.'' Raped at 8, an unwed mother in her teens, the young black girl in this book still grew up to be, well, Maya Angelou. In a year when poverty-bashing and single-mother shaming is popular, she's good for the soul.

So, for that matter are the Delany sisters, stars of ''Having Our Say,'' who offer up 200 years of collective wisdom. A dentist and a teacher by trade, these pioneers of the black middle class ''loved our country, even though it didn't love us.'' Old age is not for sissies; the Delanys survive.

What do you call ''Peripheral Visions?'' Mary Catherine Bateson doesn't color within the lines of any established literary form. But in this memoir/essay/reflection on the richness and complexity of living in a multicultured world, she explains why the best focus requires the widest lens.

Finally, the lens that Sherwin Nuland holds up to death in ''How We Die'' is nothing if not clear-eyed. ''We hide our faces from its face,'' he writes of death, ''but we still spread our fingers just a bit, because there is something in us that cannot resist a peek.'' He makes us take a long, hard, honest look.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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