Bumper crop of books for summer reading

June 30, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- The true moment of cross-cultural convergence came to my neighborhood this year when the local Starbucks started selling books. Not any books, mind you. Oprah's books. Books that came with Oprah's seal of approval.

So the cycle was complete. We had bookstores selling coffee, coffee shops selling books and both being served by the same mass media maven. As if that weren't enough, companies that published books were being gobbled up by one or two vast international conglomerates in Germany or Britain.

Pretty soon, all we'll be able to buy is predesignated best sellers with a side of joe. We'll be logging on Oprah.Amazon.com to buy John Grisham with half a pound of French roast, Danielle Steel with the godawful hazelnut and Charles Frazier with his Confederate chicory.

A personal list

So before the arbiters of taste corner the market on latte and literature, allow me to deliver my own annual summer reading list for the pre-caffeinated and pre-conglomerated. These choices come with a guarantee that they are quirky, personal, arbitrary picks of books that I read this year and liked.

We begin, like any good biblical story, in paradise, or "Paradise." In creating a doomed utopia, Toni Morrison exquisitely picks pieces of the race and gender puzzle apart and holds them up to a searing light. In her tale, skin color is both the point and beside the point, which is the point.

Mary Gordon doesn't describe paradise, but a pretty earthy facsimile full of work and love, sex and money. For an author of sometimes dark, melancholy work, "Spending" is a delicious change-of-pace romp, a mind-bawdy connection. Her artist-heroine Monica gets it all -- a lover/patron, artistic success and even vengeance -- and without being punished for uppityness.

Jane Smiley changes the pace every time she publishes. The author of the King Lear-like "A Thousand Acres" has moved to a 19th-century picaresque adventure with "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton." Lidie is a 20-year-old woman in bloody, pre-Civil War Kansas, a new frontier "already old in conflict." She's the sturdy centerpiece in a clash of genteel fantasies and frontier realities.

It's a stretch from Kansas to late 20th-century Washington state where a less sturdy Sidda retreats to unearth the "Divine Secrets the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." In Rebecca Wells' engaging novel about friendship, mother-and-daughterhood, Sidda tries to figure out and forgive her mother. From the other side of this generation gap, her mother insists, "You can't figure me out. I can't figure me out. It's life Sidda. You don't figure it out. You just climb up on the beast and ride."

Artie is equally shy of riding this bucking bronco. In Maureen Howard's "A Lover's Almanac," he wakes up to a new millennium realizing he's just ruinously offended the woman he loves. In a collage of Farmer's Almanac and novel, Howard sends him through an intellectual maze, back to love.

Novelist Carol Shields' contemporary everyman, Larry, actually makes mazes for a living. In "Larry's Party," the author of "The Stone Diaries" turns her empathic eye to the twice-married, twice-divorced man who has lived more like the tourist caught in a maze than its creator.

Grace Paley is a fine guide over to the nonfiction side of my list. Over the years, Ms. Paley has delivered short stories sparingly, like a hand-picked harvest from a family farm. Now in "Just As I Thought," she has collected dispatches from her life as a radical. This is a woman so anti-authoritarian that, as she writes, she can't read instructions in a cookbook -- "add the juice of one lemon -- without the furious response, 'Is that a direct order?' "

Jerome Groopman is, in his own gentle way, taking on the establishment as well. This caring doctor and superb storyteller writes of patients as people in "The Measure of Our Days." "There are no high-tech scans or laboratory tests to examine the fear and pain and turmoil in a patient's heart," he notes. "It takes words and thoughts and perhaps most critically, time to care for a patient's spiritual needs." Send this to your HMO.

A cultural comment

Meanwhile, if you want to hide from the television food-fight shows behind a good book, pick up Deborah Tannen's "The Argument Culture." Ms. Tannen has turned her ear from personal linguistics to public and political communication. What she hears are fighting words.

Fighting words however are better than other weapons. In a public debate over violence that seems paralyzed and polarized, Sissela Bok takes a fine careful look at violence as entertainment. In "Mayhem" she not only describes it, but also offers some sensible ways to reduce it.

Finally, I was touched by Mary Ann Cantwell's hard-on-herself remembrance of "Speaking With Strangers." It's a book about failed marriage, motherhood, life and "fado": " . . . longing and loss and regret for what you haven't had and cannot even name, as well as for what you had that's gone."

At least in this world of coffee and culture you know what sort of grind goes with Ms. Cantwell: a shot of espresso.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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