A midsummer medley of literary delights

July 29, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Not long ago, a friend of our intimate acquaintance stood before a doorstopper of a book, read the flap jacket, flipped through the preface, lifted it as if it were something assigned by her personal trainer and wondered out loud, "Do I have to actually read it? Or could I just download it?"

While the software is not yet available to allow us to download books directly into our brains, there's nothing new about the impulse to take a short cut through a long, arduous read. Why just this year, literary consumers are being offered an expanding line of, um, literary products. We now have new Cliffs Notes, Spark Notes and readers' guides to deconstruct Harry Potter and prep for book clubs.

Now, however, we are deep into hammock season, when people shut down the computer and pick up the hard cover. We actually read. So herewith I offer my belated (mid) summer reading list of books that have little in common except that they were enjoyed in their unabridged fashion by one pair of eyes.

Let me begin by going backward, at least in time. This year, when fundamentalism abroad struck home, I sat down with I, Roger Williams. This is a fictional memoir of the 17th century radical who brought freedom of religion and conscience to these shores, much to the dismay of the Puritans.

Novelist Mary Lee Settle constructs Williams as an unrepentant octogenarian still fighting off those zealots who "would have destroyed me, oh not by tearing at my throat like the wild animals, but by law and dignity and the awful certainty of righteousness." By the end, I adopted Williams as my founding grandfather.

Moving back three more centuries, I came across The Good Men in Charmaine Craig's novel. Ms. Craig was inspired by reading the deposition a young woman gave during the Inquisition about her sexual liaison with a priest. The description of the priest who attempted to "abandon the misery of his body for the mercies of his soul" builds into a lush, textured story about sex and abstinence, humanity and sainthood, men and women, celibacy and heresy that resonates as much in the 21st century as the 14th.

One more history lesson? Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has her ear tuned to "the subdued hum of unseen labor." She weaves a social history of America in The Age of Homespun out of such pre-industrial artifacts as a pocketbook, a tablecloth, a spinning wheel and a basket.

Carol Gilligan has produced a different sort of artifact, a rich and personal tapestry. The Birth of Pleasure uses myth and memoir, psychology and sexual politics to explore a question: Why do our love stories link passion with tragedy? Her reading of Psyche and Cupid and a wholly new take on the original Anne Frank diaries weave a brave and boundary-breaking book.

With the hormone debate raging, it's no surprise that the most interesting medical book of the year is Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. Atul Gawande, surgeon and storyteller, explores one basic, unsettling reality. "Medicine's ground state," he writes, "is uncertainty. And wisdom - for both patients and doctors - is defined by how one copes with it."

Margaret Atwood knows about wisdom and uncertainty in her own day job: writing. Or as she defines writing: Negotiating with the Dead. This is a witty, thoughtful look at a writer's "two selves," the everyday person and the one at the keyboard. What hooked me?

I read Edna O'Brien's work only after we shared a panel that the JFK Library held on her friend, Jackie O. I began with the 1997 novel Down by the River, a riveting and dark story based on an infamous Irish abortion case, and am working my way through this one-woman buffet to the most recent novel, In the Forest. Tasty stuff.

My taste for Carol Shields' novels has only grown with time. Now the latest and, I'm afraid, her last. In Unless, the main character is both a novelist and a mother whose daughter has retreated to a street corner in Toronto bearing a cardboard sign that reads: "Goodness." Ms. Shields, ailing from cancer, describes the misery that has entered the 19-year-old daughter, "like a soft tumor, but exceptionally aggressive." The mysteries of daughters and mothers, of families both fragile and sturdy, are explored with all of Ms. Shields' trademark humanity.

Interesting Women is too mild a description for Andrea Lee's characters. In her atmospheric short-story collection, we find expatriate Americans of mostly African-Caribbean descent living in Italy. These outsiders are familiar and exotic, jaded and naive, elite and middleclass ... and welcome immigrants to literary globalization.

Is there "chick lit" to match "chick flicks"? Alex Witchel's Me Times Three is the perfect novel for women too embarrassed to be found reading Bridget Jones III. This frothy and vivid anti-fairy tale of a Manhattan woman whose Prince Charming had two other fiancM-ies is a movie in the making and summer reading without slumming.

Finally, getting in touch with your inner and outer nature? Want to take your eye off the stock market? Put your head in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire. In this evolutionary treat, he writes about how people and plants survive together. His subjects include the hippie behind the apple seed, the control freak behind the potato and his own escapade growing marijuana. He offers, in short, "a plant's eye view of the world."

And this summer, that's looking pretty good. Now, off to plant my head solidly and safely in the fertile soil of a good book.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her column appears in The Sun Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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