Summer: The season of beaches, good books and bad best-sellers

July 09, 1996|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- It's summer. You promised to become computer literate, but suddenly you remember that even Bill Gates chose to write a book.

You've struggled with virtual reality, but now you figure you'd rather relax with a novel. You've surfed the Internet, but you find yourself longing to read in a hammock.

Meanwhile, the best-seller list sounds more like the McLaughlin Group than the literary round table.

The authors yell: "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot!" or "We're Right, They're Wrong!" And you can't believe that there are still twocount 'em, twoO.J. Simpson books in the top 10.

Better than best-sellers

Not to worry. As a public service, I once again offer an alternative and quirky list of books which have nothing in common except that I read and enjoyed them.

To begin with, "Snow Falling on Cedars" is as good a vehicle as any to help you out of the everyday speed zone. David Guterson sinks slowly into island life in midcentury Puget Sound. The backdrop of this story is a murder trial, but it evokes the deeper mysteries of a tightly knit and lethally divided community where "no one trod too easily on the emotions of another" until forced to.

There is a very different and deserted island setting for Amelia Earhart's posthumous life story. "I Was Amelia Earhart" opens in 1937 after the aviatrix's mysterious disappearance. But Jane Mendelsohn's reverie on the "loneliest of heroines" touches women of our own time who push at the edges of fame and expectations and only discover real life after they crash.

In some ways, Vienna Daniels, the heroine of Katherine Mosby's novel was also a deserted woman. "Private Altars" is the tale of an educated urban bride who arrived in a small West Virginia town in the late 1920s. This designated eccentric, a recluse with two children, is the central figure of a truly Gothic Southern story.

To complete this trilogy of women is the elderly Italian narrator in Susanna Tamaro's extended letter to an estranged granddaughter. "Follow Your Heart" trips sometimes over the threshold between sentiment and sentimentality. But the grandmother bequeaths a wisdom as earthy and well-tested as the family's cake pan.

Not just a love story

Having wallowed happily in "The Stone Diaries" last year, I've begun working my way back through Carol Shields' earlier novels with delight. "The Republic of Love" is a thoroughly modern and, therefore, skeptical love story of a thrice-married 40-year-old DJ and a never-married folklorist.

This is "just a love story" the way "The Stone Diaries" was "just a life story."

"Love," Shields writes, "belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card, or in the annals of an old-fashioned poetry society. ... It's the one thing in the world everyone wants, but for some reason people are obliged to pretend love is trifling and foolish ... "

Love makes only the most cameo appearances on the nonfiction list this year, overwhelmed by scandal and celebrity, screeds and telltales. But there is good news as well.

There has been a renaissance of political books from the dormant left-of-center. One is E.J. Dionne's book on progressive politics, a treatise more thoughtful and certainly hopeful than its title: "They Only Look Dead."

As for the resurrected, one of the very best analyses of American society, "Habits of the Heart," has been reissued with an insightful new introduction by the same five authors.

Of the media and kids

Jim Fallows, meanwhile, beats up on the media in ways that the pTC less permissive (and less sensitive) of us regard as healthy. In "Breaking the News," Fallows is best when describing the "competitive glibness ... polarization and overstatement" of talk-show journalists, and when criticizing those who analyze the politics of an issue rather than the issue.

For proof of this rebuke, there is Jonathan Kozol's sober look at the overlooked: children who live in the worst poverty pockets of urban America.

In one moment of "Amazing Grace" a mother with AIDS is told about compassion fatigue among the well-to-do and she says, "I don't understand what they have done to get so tired."

If Kozol is a lonely voice, there's an explosion of books lamenting family. One of the best is Mary Pipher's "The Shelter of Each Other."

She writes of children growing up in the "consumption oriented, electronic community that is teaching them very different values from those we say we value." She is a wise companion in family un-friendly times.

But it's fathers who have really been filling the family bookshelves. This year there are treatises on absent fathers and memoirs of remembered fathers.

Of these, Mary Gordon's book on herself/herfather is an astonishingly brave meditation on "The Shadow Man," who was the false foundation of her own life.

"My father died when I was seven years old," she writes. "I always thought that was the most important thing anyone could know about me."

Painfully, piece by piece, she exhumes a man with a different name, language, nationality, resume. In the process, she is as unsparingly honest about herself as about her father.

Wonderfully bad

Finally, if none of these books appeals to you, you can always cuddle up with the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, the award that annually honors contestants who achieve the ultimate in bad writing.

This week they gave the grand prize to Janice Estey of Aspen, Colo., for the following paragraph:

"'Ace, watch you head!' hissed Wanda urgently, yet somehow provocatively, through red, full, sensuous lips, but he couldn't, you know, since nobody can actually watch more than part of his nose or a little cheek or lips if he really tries, but he appreciated her warning."

Way to go, Janice. Next year the best-seller list!

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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