Summer readers, turn to real pages

July 06, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Now is the summer of our content. The economy is up, help is wanted, the stock market is humming along -- and book sales are off by about 30 million books.

What's going on here? The folks who survey the industry tell us that sales to adults are down 3 percent for one simple reason: "It's the economy, stupid." When people have money in their pockets they actually spend less on reading.

So are we working more and reading less? Are we too busy reading IPOs to have time for hardbacks? Have we exchanged literature for computer literacy?

Well, it's time to get away from the Web pages and turn real pages. Store the e-mail, log off the PC, turn off the cell phone, trade in the ergonomic chair for a hammock, and get between the covers. Herewith, as an aid, our annual summer reading list, a promised respite, based on absolutely nothing more high-tech than my own enjoyment.

Slowing the pace

Let me begin with a few novels sure to slow down the pace. First there is the small, richly focused story of "Charming Billy," a funny, kind, self-deceptive alcoholic who built his life on the tragic myth that his one true love died -- when in fact she had taken his money and married someone else. Alice McDermott explores Irish romanticism and realism, in both Billy and his cousin Dennis, the man who lied to Billy, believing: "Better he be brokenhearted than trailed all the rest of his life by a sense of his own foolishness." Was Dennis right?

There is little such romanticism in "Amy and Isabelle," an entwined single mother and teen-age daughter, living a pinched life in a small and stifling factory town in Maine. In Elizabeth Strout's novel, the daughter's sexual involvement with her math teacher is a cluster bomb that blows out the careful, prim walls of their life. We see the longing, frustration, connection and separation of mothers and adolescent daughters.

What of friends who connect and split? In "The Evolution of Jane," a young, newly divorced woman on a trip to the Galapagos determines to find out what happened -- not to her marriage, but to her first best friendship with Martha. In Cathleen Schine's inventive novel, full of Darwin and debate, Jane wants to discover if relationships are also matter of random selection and sudden extinction.

In David Guterson's novel, an older and wiser Ben Givens sets out "East of the Mountains." With the richness of a Wallace Stegner, Mr. Guterson traces Givens' life over decades of war, marriage, doctoring, hunting -- as the surgeon trudges through what he intends to be his last day.

In a tender memoir, John Bayley traverses the same landscape of old age and infirmity, intimacy and isolation. At a time when so many memoirs bear the mark of Narcissus, Bayley's "Elegy For Iris" is at once a graceful story of his marriage to the writer Iris Murdoch and an achingly honest portrait of caring for her as she went "sailing into the darkness" of Alzheimer's.

Focusing a final wider lens on old age, Mary Pipher calls it simply "Another Country." The author, who has written eloquently on adolescent girls, now becomes a field guide for middle-age children and elderly parents. She shares stories and riddles at the heart of a lingering generation gap and, too often, a great family divide.

Now to the true and foreign world of "The Orchid Thief." Susan Orlean introduces the reader not only to the thief himself, John Laroche -- "the most moral amoral person I've ever known" -- but to an entire claque of smugglers, collectors and cloners, past and present. You'll never think of that little wrist corsage the same way.

Nor, if Natalie Angier has her way, will you ever think of the female body the same way. "Woman: An Intimate Geography" is a subversive romp through the scientific literature of female anatomy. It's as if Monty Python did "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Funny and wry, as she debunks the old biological myths of female inferiority, Ms. Angier tells more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the female organs.

Speaking of which, Germaine Greer is back! The author of "The Female Eunuch" has now written "The Whole Woman," a contradictory, flailing screed of a book about how terrible everything is for women. It has more energy than accuracy. Half-full glasses abound. But I'd put Ms. Greer up against the entire post-feminist collection any day. You go, girl -- uh, woman.

Short takes

Finally, I offer three books of short stories for the one-minute managers among us who barely have time to scan. First, Lorrie Moore's "Birds of America." Her characters take short hops, the flight patterns of wounded birds. Two Yuppies facing New Year's Eve, a mother bargaining with a banal Higher Being for the life of her child, an aging C-movie star -- all are sketched in the sharp language of symbolism.

Next, "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing." (Hunting and fishing for men of course, not beasts.) If Bridget Jones and her diary struck you as boringly retro, the female character in Melissa Bank's stories has enough edge, energy and introspection to keep you on her side as she grows, slowly, up.

And then there is -- always I hope -- Alice Munro. "The Love of a Good Woman" is a collection of stories about the normalcy of the abnormal. Her characters -- good girls, bewildered mothers, a grandmother on the edge of a cliff -- discover sinkholes on the ordinary path of life.

Even in a good economy, words between these covers are the real, rich, stuff.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/06/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.